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Harrop: Panhandling is not harmless

Published: Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Indianapolis offers the full urban deal: great architecture, hot restaurants, famous museums and a walkable downtown. But it also has had one of the worst panhandler problems I’ve seen. At almost every street corner, it seemed, someone was squeezing you for money.

This month, Indianapolis joined San Antonio, Portland, Ore., and numerous other cities in curbing aggressive begging. And as has happened elsewhere, the American Civil Liberties Union immediately filed a suit.

“The ACLU of Indiana,” its executive director, Jane Henegar, said, “believes in the power of the First Amendment to give everyone a voice, even when those voices confront us with our greatest challenges, such as poverty and homelessness.”Defenders of panhandling commonly portray these laws as heartless campaigns to remove ragged people – the homeless, vagrants, loiterers and beggars – from the public’s view. They rarely take the thought a step further and insist that suburbanites be confronted with the same disheveled beings in their privately owned shopping malls and cul-de-sacs.

No doubt many businesses struggling to revive their downtown want these people gone. But courts have also identified another right -- that to use public streets without being confronted with demands for money. Depending on urban-comfort levels, people’s response may vary from guilty compliance to mild annoyance to feeling threatened.

We’re talking about the future of urban America. As cities became repositories of the poor, the will to preserve their nice public things, be they libraries or parks, withered. As John Kenneth Galbraith famously put it, the nation became a land of “private affluence” and “public squalor.”

Almost no amount of money can reproduce the glorious old structures that were leveled for parking lots. But saving what’s left and bringing taxpayers downtown makes jobs and injects dollars into shabby schools, hospitals and other institutions on which low-income populations depend.

A projected $12 billion will have been invested in downtown Indianapolis between 1990 and 2017. Armies of panhandlers would make these efforts for naught.Be mindful that panhandling is not an answer to poverty or homelessness. Few panhandlers are homeless, and the poorest, saddest people are not among them.

Panhandlers tend to be aggressive hustlers.

What about free speech? Don’t panhandlers have a First Amendment right to get in your face and demand, much less ask nicely for, a handout? Not necessarily, the courts have ruled.

Well-written regulations deal with this issue. Sitting quietly on a corner with a sign saying “homeless veteran” (almost never the case) is protected speech. Confronting others with requests for money is a more limited right. It is considered “commercial speech” – an appeal to transfer funds from one pocket to another.

Indianapolis Downtown Inc., a group engaged in reviving the commercial core, has issued a useful set of guidelines for visitors and workers. For example, vocal solicitations are not permitted at bus stops or on public transportation vehicles.

The guidelines distinguish between passive panhandling, still legal, and “aggressive panhandling,” which is not. It is illegal to block the path of the person being approached, use profane language or make “intimidating” gestures. When that happens, one should call 911.

The guidelines also urge generous people to give their money instead to charities that work with those in distress. And they list the names and addresses of food kitchens, missions and shelters to which one may direct someone in apparent great need.

Cities are not the suburbs, where one can raise the car windows and turn on music as a barricade against unpleasant social interactions. In cities, there’s less space per person, which is why official and unofficial codes for social conduct are essential to civic health. And that’s why panhandling needs to become a relic from the age of public squalor.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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