Collins, who chaired the committee hearing, explained that his proposal came in consultation with the city law department. The councilman told the gathering that a previous law director in March 2008, directed Toledo’s police chief to quit enforcing a similar law already on the books because of court challenges pending at the time. Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were behind those court challenges.
“So, from a practical standpoint, there has been no enforcement of the solicitation, or what was called begging at the time, ordinance,” Collins explained.
The councilman, who’s up for re-election in November, cited a recent appeals court decision from Cincinnati and a recent ordinance, which prompted Toledo Law Director Adam Loukx to draft the legislation council is being asked to consider. Collins called it “a very important issue.”
“There is some concern whether the ordinance on the books, which has not been enforced, comports to today’s constitutional standards,” said Loukx, who stated the Cincinnati law is being used as a model for proposed changes to the Toledo Municipal Code. “What we had done here is redefine solicitation and placed some time, place, and manner restrictions on certain acts. For instance, keep people from soliciting or asking for money within 20 feet of an ATM machine.”
The proposal also prohibits people begging for money as other people enter or exit a vehicle or on private property without permission from the property owner. It also would be illegal for a beggar to represent himself as a veteran or person “with an ailment or disability” if those representations prove “false or misleading.” Solicitors also would be prohibited from using profane language, threatening, or touching a potential donor.
But it would not be considered soliciting if the person is “standing passively holding a sign,” according to Loukx. The potential penalties would not change: a minor misdemeanor for a first offense, a fourth-degree misdemeanor for a second offense, and a third-degree misdemeanor on subsequent offenses.
“I think it may be impossible to come up with perfect for every situation, but this legislation, I believe, is a vast improvement over the archaic and unenforced legislation on the books,” said Loukx. “I think the city of Toledo would be in a better position to defend any challenges to it.”
Right now, the proposed ordinance is an “emergency” measure, which would take effect immediately on the mayor’s signature once passed. The law director acknowledged the proposed changes to an existing law may need additional time for the “public to educate themselves.”
Council member Paula Hicks-Hudson stated she had received a number of constituent calls from local business owners seeking relief from panhandling downtown in front of their storefronts. She questioned how aggressively police would enforce the proposed changes.
“Initially, there may be some extra steps taken, but that would not last an extended period of time,” said Deputy Police Chief George Taylor. “Then it would fall into line with our other enforcement duties.”
The proposed panhandling ordinance has raised concerns from the Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. In a letter to council member Collins, that agency’s executive director Scott Sylak particularly raised the issue of clients who suffer from SPMI, or severe persistent mental illness. The MHRS board believes the law’s changes would negatively impact those suffering from mental illness, because their chances would increase of being hit with fines they cannot pay or being sent to jail.
Council member Tom Waniewski questioned whether there had been efforts alongside the ordinance to reach out to agencies responsible for finding mental health clients food, clothing, housing, and other services. He openly wondered whether “we’re neglecting a segment of our population.”
“Certainly this law, as proposed or certainly as amended, is not going to be the antidote for poverty in the city of Toledo,” said Collins. “The law, as I see it, is a tool that can be used from the enforcement standpoint and a tool that can be used to provide someone access to the social network that’s necessary.”
Collins acknowledged it is a “sensitive issue.” He called it a “double safety net” that allows a police officer to determine whether it’s a criminal matter involving a scammer or one which calls for the intervention of social service agencies.
Loukx explained the proposed ordinance “walks a fine line” between someone’s right under free speech to hold up a sign versus the public’s right to walk safely down a sidewalk without feeling “intimidated” or be “unreasonably annoyed in close proximity to an ATM machine.”
Homeless advocates criticized the proposed amendments, stating they would prevent economic opportunity programs aimed at helping to make the homeless more self-sufficient and prevent begging on street corners. One agency publishes a newspaper called “Toledo Streets,” which some individual “vendors” sell to make money instead of panhandling.
“We would like to see people put down the signs that say ‘Will Work for Food’ and pick up the street papers in order to work for money because then they can buy food,” said Ken Leslie of “One Matters,” a nonprofit organization that works with the homeless. “The law, as it is written, will prevent that activity. It’s about economic opportunity.”
“I’m against aggressive panhandling as much as anybody,” Leslie added.
Bill Thomas, executive director of the Downtown Toledo Improvement District, explained to city council about his agency’s Ambassador program, where trained volunteers perform what he called “street triage.” Volunteers encounter and talk to panhandlers and the homeless, trying to assess their individual needs and carry pamphlets which provide information about a variety of social service agencies that can help meet those needs.
“It’s going to be a little more difficult for us,” he said, but noted that panhandlers this year have been “a bit more aggressive.” Thomas also noted that various convenience stores near downtown have started offering 24-ounce beers for $1, which adds to the panhandling problem.
“I think if we all collectively get our arms around this, we try to get these people into the services they need, and try to keep it a non-threatening situation, then it’ll really be a win for all,” said Thomas.
“I think the ones who will be adversely affected by this are those with severe psychiatric disabilities,” said Richard Arnold, a long-time mental health advocate. “As I think you know, they have a constitutional right to avoid all treatment, to avoid all medication. About the only exception is if they do something horrible and a judge court-orders them into treatment. But for the most part, people have a constitutional right to live on the streets and panhandle. What I’m hoping is this population won’t be adversely impacted and adversely targeted by the police.”
Arnold stated that people with mental illness don’t respond well to incarceration. Studies show they go right back to the same behaviors when released. He advocated for treatment instead.
“I hope that intervention will be the first order of business and incarceration will be the last resort,” he said.
“We need to impart this information as part of our police training to improve those sensitivities,” responded Collins. “So that when they deal with people on the street, it’s dealt with appropriately and legally.”
The proposed ordinance will go before the full council for the first time next week. The changes in the existing law could be voted on as soon as council’s next meeting on Aug. 23.