BANGOR, Maine — Despite the recent failure of a similar ordinance effort in Portland, Bangor city officials are pressing ahead with an effort to regulate panhandling in public ways and city streets.
Bangor City Solicitor Norm Heitmann has begun researching other civic ordinances and possible ordinance language in the wake of a Bangor City Council business and economic committee meeting Tuesday night. At that meeting, councilors discussed concerns and complaints resulting from panhandlers occupying medians, crosswalks and traffic islands while holding signs reading “Will work for food” or “Homeless, please help.”
“The courts have ruled that asking for money is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s really more than just someone asking for money,” said Heitmann. “The concerns some councilors have expressed center on safety.”
Heitmann provided some examples of potential actions or situations arising from panhandling, such as a car getting rear-ended by another vehicle after slowing down or stopping for the driver to hand someone some money.
“There’s always that danger,” Heitmann said. “Or maybe you stop to give money and the guy walks around to the passenger side of the car and meanwhile, the car behind you is speeding around to pass you on the right and he hits the guy walking out to the other side. That’s a real and legitimate concern.”
Bangor police Sgt. Tom Reagan said it’s become a problem, both in terms of safety and being a public nuisance.
“They do kind of blend into the background a lot, until they get in the street and become a safety issue by obstructing traffic,” said Reagan.
Reagan said he doesn’t buy rumors that some panhandlers are being paid to beg for money by drug dealers and paid for their efforts with drugs.
“I don’t think anyone is working for a drug dealer. I think they may be working for drugs, but not necessarily for a drug dealer,” he said.
Reagan said another unsaid truth about some of the panhandlers is that they’re not really just looking for food.
“There used to be one who hung out on the I-95 south exit on Broadway with a ‘Homeless. Need money for food’ sign,” Reagan said. “We got a complaint and went out, and when you looked at the field he was standing in front of, there were all of these wrapped sandwiches and packages of food people had given him over the last couple weeks that he had tossed.
“He didn’t want food, he wanted money.”
Reagan said city ordinance or not, the best thing people can do is to stop giving panhandlers money.
“People think they’re being good and helping someone, but you’re basically only enabling them,” Reagan said. “If people want to help out or be generous, they should donate either food or money to the local food banks like Manna or the homeless shelters.”
Reagan said current law already gives police the power to move panhandlers or arrest them if they resist orders to move if they’re on private property, like the medians or islands in Kohl’s Plaza off Stillwater Avenue.
Heitmann said he’s not sure exactly when the councilors will revisit the issue, but he should be ready to present them with options in a couple of weeks.
“The big thing is creating an ordinance that regulates behavior, not class or person,” said Heitmann. “And you have to keep in mind that what you regulate can be about more than just soliciting money. It applies to asking for signatures on a petition, taking a survey or asking to talk to someone about religion.”
The main aim for a potential new ordinance is to decrease unsafe behavior and ensure that motorists and pedestrians can travel freely and without resistance.
“If you’re walking down the sidewalk, you should be free to go where you’re going. That doesn’t mean I can’t say, ‘Hey, can you spare some change, or would you like to sign this or talk religion with me?’” said Heitmann. “But when you say ‘no,’ you should be able to go on your way unfettered, and not have me get in front of your face or yell at you. And there’s a way to address that.”
Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, is uncomfortable with the idea of regulating what courts have established as freedom of speech.
“Free speech rights of people who are homeless should be reviewed with the highest level of scrutiny,” Bellows said. “We are very concerned with what we see as a trend across the country to single out people who are homeless and criminalize homelessness.
“Regardless of the intent, the impact of such laws is discriminatory.”
And what of public safety concerns?
“There was a similar debate in Portland about a month ago and some of those hypothetical situations were mentioned then too,” said Bellows, who noted Portland’s anti-panhandling ordinance proposal was defeated 6-3. “If the government is going to restrict First Amendment rights, it has to have a good reason and the council should move very cautiously in adopting any ordinances that would restrict free speech activity.”
Heitmann acknowledged the federally protected status of panhandling as free speech, but said that doesn’t mean free speech can always be used to infringe other rights or safety.
“The First Amendment doesn’t exist just to protect the speech we all agree with, but also the speech that may make us uncomfortable as well,” said Bellows. “That goes to the heart of free speech.”