PORTLAND, Maine — For the second time in two years, the Portland city council on Monday took up an ordinance proposal that would prevent panhandling — or stopping for any other reason — in the median strips.
Unlike the last time a year ago, however, the council approved the ordinance change with a 6-0 vote. Councilors John Anton, Cheryl Leeman and Jill Duson were absent.
Supporters of the proposed ordinance change called it a safety issue, saying panhandlers are frequently reported to police as intoxicated and in jeopardy of getting hit by passing cars. Opponents decried the measure as a way of sweeping the poor out of the public eye and trampling on their constitutional rights.
The topic of panhandlers’ rights has become a hot button issue in Maine in recent months. In addition to the Portland debate over median strips, the second and third largest cities in the state — Lewiston and Bangor, respectively — have been considering or approved ordinances blocking “aggressive panhandling,” often defined as making physical contact with passers-by or continuing to ask for money after a person has declined.
Portland already as a rule on the books prohibiting aggressive panhandling, but under the ordinance change will move beggars from the median strips in city streets, which have become high visibility spots to ask for money from motorists traveling in both directions.
The revived council discussion Monday came almost exactly a year after the city’s governing panel shot down the same proposed rule change by a 6-3 vote, with councilors voting against the language, expressing concerns it would be seen as infringing on the panhandlers’ First Amendment rights of expression.
In advance of Monday’s renewed consideration of the issue, however, neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister — an attorney who works with the Portland Police Department — wrote in a memo to the council that because the proposed ordinance language doesn’t specifically block “panhandling,” it’s legally defensible. She wrote that because the rule would restrict “any person” and is “unrelated to the content of expression,” it would stand up against a First Amendment challenge.
With the change, the city’s ordinances will state that no one can “stand, sit, stay, drive or park” in a median strip, and furthermore hammers home the point by adding that “pedestrians may use the median strips only in the course of crossing from one side of the street to others.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, disagreed with McAllister’s assessment.
“The Constitution does not allow you to address [safety] problems with such a broad stroke as this ordinance applies,” he said. “The council wisely rejected this ordinance last year. We urge you to reject it this year and to reject it again next year if necessary.”
Representatives of several Portland neighborhood organizations, Portland’s Downtown District and the Friends of Deering Oaks all spoke in favor of the ordinance change. Some said they felt the proposal didn’t go far enough.
Tim McNamara of the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association said he would prefer the ordinance block any hand-to-hand exchange between a pedestrian and motor vehicle in traffic.
“It is inevitable that someone will be seriously injured or killed,” agreed Anne Pringle of Friends of Deering Oaks.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the council that complaints to the police about panhandlers in the median strips have grown by 23 percent over the past year, from 101 in the first five months of 2012 to 124 over the same stretch in 2013.
The chief read off some of the complaints logged with his department, saying multiple callers expressed concerns about apparently intoxicated individuals in danger of falling “in front of [complainants’] cars,” reaching into open car windows and punching reluctant drivers or yelling expletives.
“[We] all fully understand that panhandling is a constitutional right,” Sauschuck said. “I would also say the reason we’re here today is that we have a public safety concern.”
Some who spoke during Monday night’s meeting didn’t buy that.
dee Clark, an advocate for the Portland organization Homeless Voices for Justice, said if the council really cares about the health of people living in poverty, it would invest in more affordable housing, domestic violence shelters and long-term substance abuse treatment programs.
“Do you know how many people were killed last year by holding a sign in the median strip? Zero,” Clark said. “I can say from experience it’s much more uncomfortable to live in poverty than to witness poverty. … We appreciate the concern for those who stand in the median strips, but the dangers faced in poverty don’t end in the median strip.”
“If we were going to implement laws to eliminate the possibility of injury, we should prevent people from swimming on the beach,” said longtime Portland resident Brian Leonard, who called the ordinance proposal “despicable.”
Others who spoke before the council expressed concerns the ordinance proposal will simply drive panhandlers into other areas of the city, such as the downtown or Old Port.
One man panhandling on the median strip at the intersection of Somerset and Franklin streets Monday afternoon said his first name was Mike, but declined to give his last name. He said an ordinance blocking him from the median wouldn’t prevent him from asking people for spare change.
“I’ll just stand on the corner,” he said, nodding his head toward the nearby sidewalk. A few minutes later, a passer-by gave him a bottle of water to combat the summer heat.
The ordinance proposal was unanimously endorsed by the council’s four-member Public Safety Health and Human Services Committee, as well as given a first reading by the full council, last month.