WASHINGTON -- On one heavily traveled street in the Dupont Circle area, three panhandlers crouch in the grass beside the sidewalk, asking passers-by for money. On another, a man sits on the steps of a rowhouse, rattling the change in a paper cup. On a third, a man threads his way through a noonday crowd, meekly extending a tin can.
To several merchants, to the police and even to some panhandlers, the docile, even polite, behavior of those asking for alms on a recent weekday is the result of last spring's Washington law banning aggressive panhandling -- a law that is very similar to legislation being considered by the Baltimore City Council.
"This law has been absolutely the right move for the Dupont Circle community," declares Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professional Association. "The primary difference is the type of panhandlers. We don't have the aggressive ones out there any more."
But civil libertarians and homeless advocates say that the law was not needed in the first place and is being enforced unfairly -- while some shopkeepers say hostile, threatening actions by panhandlers remain a problem that the law has done little to address.
"Nothing has changed, at least that I've seen," says Gary Taylor, the owner of a print and framing shop in the Adams Morgan section of Washington. "Panhandlers still hassle people on the street, they still walk into my store.
"A lot of these people have mental problems. It's beyond a pain in the neck," he adds.
The Baltimore City Council will hold a hearing tomorrow at 1 p.m. on the proposed legislation, which is backed by the Schmoke administration and that would prohibit panhandlers from harassing or intimidating people.
Under the legislation, introduced last month, panhandlers could not use obscene or abusive language, block the path of a person or a car, or keep asking for money after having been refused. It also would ban panhandling near automatic teller machines and at bus stops and outlaws the activity of the so-called "squeegee kids," who solicit money from drivers stopped in traffic in exchange for cleaning their windshields.
The bill has the support of many Baltimore business owners, who say the unruly actions of some panhandlers are driving away customers. But it has been vehemently opposed by advocates for the homeless, who have demonstrated weekly outside City Hall to protest a bill they portray as a veiled attempt to rid downtown shopping districts of poor people.
Like the Baltimore bill, which carries a possible fine of $100 and a maximum jail term of 30 days, the Washington law created a misdemeanor offense. In Washington, the penalties are a fine of $300 and a maximum 90 days in jail.
District of Columbia police say they have no figures on how many arrests they have made under the law. But in the first six weeks after it was passed, police officials in the Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Georgetown areas of the city said they arrested 70 people suspected of aggressive panhandling.
In the 2nd Police District, which includes Georgetown and the downtown business district, Capt. Ross E. Swope estimates there have been 50 arrests since the law was enacted in May. But the pace of arrests has decreased markedly since the first weeks, he says.
"In the first two months, we enforced the law aggressively. After that, people pretty much modified their behavior," he said.
Most of those who are arrested spend a night in jail and are rTC released after appearing in court and agreeing to pay a fine, usually $50, within a month, according to Frank R. Trinity, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
"I feel that's unconscionable -- asking them to make a promise they can't keep," says Mr. Trinity, who adds that the panhandlers can be picked up on a bench warrant if they do not pay the fine.
Mr. Trinity and Arthur B. Spitz er, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, say that portions of the law are vague, and they are looking for a case to challenge its constitutionality.
Mr. Trinity says there are other laws to deal with aggressive behavior. He also maintains that some panhandlers have been arrested illegally after begging for change and that some arrests were not preceded by warnings. Police officials vigorously dispute the allegations.
"I honestly don't see that," says Deputy Chief Larry D. Soulsby, commander of the district that includes Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. "We're not out there trying to bust people. Our job is to keep people from being aggressive."
Perceptions on how effective the law has been vary as widely as those on how it has been enforced.
"It's helped the problem," says Angelo Pace, owner of Anna Maria's restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, who says his customers used to be bothered "coming and going."
But Bardia Ferdowski, manager of Cafe Picasso in Adams Morgan, says, "Even though they passed the law, it didn't make any difference. Panhandlers are sitting outside. If customers refuse to give them money, some start to use rough language. Sometimes they are so aggressive and demanding that we don't know how to handle them."
For several weeks after the law went into effect, one panhandler attracted notice -- and money -- by holding a hand-drawn sign declaring, "I'm a Non-Aggressive Panhandler."
Barbara Kent, 38, one of several people panhandling in Dupont Circle recently, says people are more generous to her since the law was passed. "A panhandler shouldn't be aggressive. They locked up the ones that are, and they should. The ones that aren't, they leave them alone," she says.
Another panhandler, who gives his name only as Charles, says that aggressive panhandling is down since the law was passed but that panhandling overall is on the rise.
"People don't do this by choice. They do it to stay alive," he says.