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Putting down panhandlers

We will try not to judge too harshly those on the Baltimore City Council who are supporting a crackdown on panhandling — just as they should not judge too harshly those who are doing the panhandling. A poverty of ideas is just another form of poverty.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Baltimore already has a decade-old law on the books that prohibits aggressive panhandling. Examples of outlawed behavior include refusing to take no for an answer, following or touching people on the street or swearing at them. It's also illegal to solicit near an ATM or near a bus stop or on a bus or to a motorist in the street (eliminating squeegee kid as a viable profession). Violators can face fines of up to $250 and 90 days in jail.

But now Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and some others on the council want to extend that prohibition to within 10 feet of restaurants, shops or parking meters, which essentially eliminates business districts, the conventional place for such begging. The proponents' motivations are obvious. Downtown merchants are frustrated by panhandling that they fear turns away customers and hurts the city's economic viability.

We share that frustration and concern. Baltimore would be a better place if people did not go around begging for money. Most people who live, work or visit the city have had experience with panhandling, and it's not always pleasant. And when businesses lose customers, we all lose if it means a loss of income to the owner, the employees and ultimately to the local economy.

But panhandling is a symptom of a much broader social problem. In a city where one out of five adults and one out of three children live below the poverty line, the more apt question might be, why aren't more people out there begging? Surely, it's not because there's an excess of affordable housing, hot meals and jobs.

Baltimore has a high unemployment rate (10.8 percent as of July) and no shortage of people who suffer from addiction and mental illnesses, and those chronic problems should be recognized as the real issue. And entering yet another debate about panhandling — which seems to rise up every five years or so like swine flu or perhaps a stink bug outbreak — does nothing to address these underlying societal maladies.

What's particularly baffling about this proposal is that it's hard to believe that inventing new restrictions on panhandling does anyone much good anyway. Police don't often ticket panhandlers found to be violating the law now. When there's a complaint, they ask the panhandler to move on.

Officers can't stick around all night to make sure a problem panhandler doesn't return. Surely, nobody believes that having police prowling around for people asking for pocket change would be a good use of limited public safety resources at a time when the city's murder rate is rising — nor would it be prudent to go around locking up homeless people.

Perhaps the proposal is just some cathartic exercise in shared frustration — or to demonstrate political fealty to the Downtown Partnership. But the measure's approval Tuesday evening by the council's judiciary committee means it has to be taken seriously. This could actually become law, and then the city may find itself in federal court explaining to a judge why a law written so broadly isn't a violation of the First Amendment and the panhandlers' right to free speech.

Clearly, the better solution would be to invest more in effective outreach programs that find better opportunities for the people who are doing the panhandling. We strongly suspect the reason most people beg is that they need the money. The more assistance (food, health care, housing or a job or job training) such individuals can be provided, whether by businesses, non-profits or government, the less they'll need to panhandle.

That's not to suggest that every panhandler is a Boy Scout. We are not so naïve. But we do know they are human beings, and if we do not want to offer them a handout, as welfare-to-work advocates used to say, we should be prepared to offer a hand up. That's a lot tougher to do than pass an ordinance, of course, but it might actually be effective.

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