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Some downtown want panhandling banned

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Some 1st Ward residents say they've just about had it with panhandlers in downtown Evanston.

Not a new issue: A drawing of a beggar illustrating a Sherlock Holmes mystery in an 1891 magazine.

Some 1st Ward residents say they'veve just about had it with panhandlers in downtown Evanston.

The vexed residents asked Alderman Judy Fiske at a ward meeting Tuesday night to persuade her fellow aldermen to pass something more substantial than the current ordinance to curb the practice.

Many offered their own panhandling stories, claiming the practice made them feel uncomfortable, harassed and unsafe.

Evanston has tried to regulate panhandling at least since the mid 1990s, starting with efforts to persuade residents to give to charities, rather than directly to those begging on the streets.

The city banned so-called "aggressive panhandling" in 2001 and barred solicitation near ATM machines, on trains and buses or their stations, and in certain other locations, including sidewalk cafes.

Earlier this year the city expanded the ordinance to limit door-to-door solicitation.

But Police Community Strategies Officer Scott Sengenberger told residents at the meeting that, under the current ordinance, “panhandling is legal in the city of Evanston.”

Sengenberger said the city’s law bans panhandlers from approaching people who could not otherwise walk away, for example, when they’re stopped at a red light or dining at a sidewalk cafe. Panhandlers are not allowed to touch people and if someone says no and they continue to ask for money, Sengenberger said that would be considered aggressive panhandling and is punishable under the current law.

“Everywhere else they can [panhandle], as long as they do not violate these boundaries,” he said.

He said police cite or arrest on average about one person a week for aggressive panhandling — 47 last year and 34 so far this year.

Efforts in some communities to bar panhandling have been rejected by courts that found the rules violated First Amendment free speech rights.

But some residents at the 1st Ward meeting said Evanston was behind on the issue — claiming that many cities have banned panhandling completely.

That apparently is not true. But some towns in Florida have been especially aggressive in trying to limit panhandling. Orlando, for example has required panhandlers to obtain city permits and restricted them to begging within a limited number of designated blue boxes painted on city sidewalks.

Orlando, like Ottawa, Ontario, has also set up "homeless meters" — repurposed parking meters — near spots where panhandlers congregate — to let people give to charities, rather than directly to the needy.

At left: Ottawa calls its donation boxes for the homeless "kindness meters." 

But Paul Selden, executive director of Connections for the Homeless, said today that panhandlers may just be a fact of city life, and not something that should be legislated out of town.

First, he said, not all panhandlers are homeless; some simply panhandle to supplement their income.

“But in a city the size of Evanston, we will have a homeless population of at least 850 people,” Selden said.

“If the number of people panhandling is five or six on the street, Evanston is doing pretty well,” he said. “That doesn’t diminish that it’s irritating.”

But just because it’s bothersome doesn’t mean it should be outlawed, he said.

“Obviously it’s an income, and in a town that’s done so little for affordable housing," a ban would decrease panhandlers’ "ability to pay rent here or survive.”

Panhandling in Evanston, Selden suggests, may actually be the result of simple economic supply and demand, Selden said.

“There are those who encourage panhandling by giving to panhandlers, and panhandlers come here because it is a generous city,” he said.

But Selden said there are other ways to help those in need — giving to and volunteering at soup kitchens and giving to organizations like Connections for the Homeless, to name a few.

Selden said Evanston could also try some strategies to curb the practice.

“You could create more affordable housing. You could really make an effort. You could in effect register people, you could in effect license them,” he said.

Or, he said, “You could simply accept this is part of the urban landscape these days.”

If a ban on panhandling ever comes up at a City Council meeting, Selden said he would definitely oppose the measure, and would argue that there are better ways of dealing with the issue.

Despite his own distaste for panhandling, Selden said there are many other organizations that annoy him with solicitation, some of them charitable organizations.

“I think if you’re going to ban [panhandling], you’ve got to ban them all,” he said. 

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