Council, citizens torn over panhandlers

After an hour-long debate on the issue of panhandlers, council members passed a revised ordinance that was created to push panhandlers away from businesses on the strip.

The new ordinance makes it illegal for panhandlers to be active on any publicly owned property.

According to the meeting’s agenda, the ordinance was created after a business retention/expansion visit program was conducted, and multiple business owners cited panhandling as a major city problem. The Carbondale Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the City Council on Oct. 17 with a suggestion to give police the proper tools to take care of panhandlers, and the ordinance was written as a solution.

Both citizens and council members said they believed the issue existed when the item was presented at Tuesday’s council meeting but had different ideas of how to deal with it.

Councilperson Lance Jack said as owner of Fat Patties he has dealt with streetside solicitation for years. He said while the offenders hurt business on the Strip, the proper laws are already set to deter panhandlers.

“It’s going to be another ineffectual layer of law — a law we’re passing to make ourselves feel good and make others in the community think, ‘Hey, they’re really doing something about it,’” he said.

Panhandlers make people feel uncomfortable, Jack said, but there are only a handful of city panhandlers who conduct themselves in a harsh enough way to drive people away from the Strip.

This form of solicitation is known as aggressive panhandling, he said, and if citizens want these eight to 10 individuals off the streets, they have to work together to alleviate the problem.

If an individual is panhandled, Jack said, they must make the effort to call the police and have the offender arrested or nothing will change.

“Most importantly, it needs to come from the citizens because if every time you are harassed by someone and picked up the phone saying, ‘Hey, here’s this guy right now harassing me,’ and we continue to turn up the heat on them, these eight to 10 are going to get tired of getting hauled down by our wonderful police department,” he said.

Jack was the only council member to vote against the ordinance.

Meghan Cole, director of Carbondale Main Street, said she supports the ordinance because she knows of multiple cases where aggressive panhandling has taken place, and the people being solicited felt uncomfortable calling the police because they believe the authorities haven’t made a difference with the issue in the past.

“When I asked them why they didn’t call the police, they said they had seen me call the police so many times and nothing happened,” Cole said. “They didn’t think it would make a difference.”

Deputy Chief of Police Jim Grubbs said the biggest problem with punishing panhandlers is that people are apprehensive to sign complainant forms or have business patrons sign the document.

The form proves there was a witness to the offense and allows officers to make arrests, he said.

However, not every meeting attendee was as concerned with arresting the offenders.

Jim Hope, of Murphysboro, said he was in the situation many panhandlers are in, and taking away poverty-stricken people’s ability to panhandle may take away their ability to eat.

Employing the offenders might be a better solution and could help these individuals work toward a brighter future, he said.

“If (panhandlers) are hanging around businesses, why can’t they hire them just to squeegee up their windows or clean their sidewalks up and give them a chance to eat?” Hope said.

Others at the meeting shared similar sentiments.

Councilman Chris Wissmann said although the issue should be dealt with because it drives people away from business, it needs to be done so with the poverty stricken in mind.

“(The council) is not criminalizing poverty,” he said. “We need to get them off the streets, but we also have to get them into services, so that has to be part of our long-term goal.”

Wissmann said fining a person who will need to panhandle to pay the fine won’t solve the problem, so getting panhandlers into homeless shelters will be key.

The council also made the definition of panhandling clear and explained what behavior the ordinance bans.

Councilman Don Monty said a person can stand on the sidewalk with a sign asking for money as long as he or she remains unaggressive and does not continuously ask for money. A person or group of people can also play instruments on the sidewalk with the intention to obtain money.

Mayor Joel Fritzler said creative ways to acquire money would not be considered panhandling as long as the individuals didn’t make others feel uncomfortable.

“We don’t want to discourage certain creativeness such as street musicians,” he said. “People can play music and leave their guitar case open or violin case open — no bagpipes please.”

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About Austin Flynn

Austin Flynn can be reached at aflynn@dailyegyptian.com or 536-3311 ext.252.

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