Government & Politics

KC Council bill aims to stop panhandling in traffic without violating First Amendment

The new KC City Council ordinance says pedestrians can be on a median, traffic island or a non-sidewalk area near a highway ramp only as long as it takes to cross safely.
The new KC City Council ordinance says pedestrians can be on a median, traffic island or a non-sidewalk area near a highway ramp only as long as it takes to cross safely.

You won’t see the word “panhandle” anywhere in the ordinance introduced Thursday by Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar.

It says pedestrians can be on a median, traffic island or a non-sidewalk area near a highway ramp only as long as it takes to cross safely.

The measure’s actual intent is to rid the roads of a familiar sight: People who spend their days and evenings asking for money from motorists stopped in traffic. Laws specifically barring panhandlers have been thrown out by courts across the country, on grounds that they violate First Amendment rights to free expression.

Loar, who lists six council co-sponsors — enough for passage — makes no bones about about using pedestrian safety as legal cover for maneuvering around the constitutional issue.

“The problem is getting worse and worse,” said Loar, who represents Northland’s 2nd District at-large. “It’s north and south and east and west.”

She said the volume of calls to the city’s 311 action center complaining about panhandlers has increased markedly, from 191 in 2017 to 176 through the first six months of this year. She said police have identified Interstate 35 at The Paseo and Interstate 70 near Sterling Street as particularly active locations.

The ordinance filed Thursday does not specify penalties, although they are likely to be the usual for municipal violations — fines and possibly small amounts of jail time.

The city has a 2007 ordinance on the books prohibiting “aggressive panhandling,” meaning touching, threatening or following someone to ask for money. Then-police chief Jim Corwin declined to enforce the measure because of constitutional concerns. It remains in effect, but is only sporadically enforced.

Other localities are invoking pedestrian safety concerns to go after panhandlers.

Last October, the Omaha City Council passed a measure similar to the one introduced by Loar, barring pedestrians from medians near the city’s busiest intersections. The Wichita City Council took a slightly different tack last December, establishing fines of up to $500 for both panhandlers and motorists who try to help them.

Critics call anti-panhandling laws an attempt to criminalize homelessness. But Loar and a prominent advocate for the ordinance contend that those panhandling motorists are not homeless but street-level hustlers.

“I want to be clear that the ordinance they’re talking about is for those who are using moniker of homelessness for nefarious reasons,” said Sean O’Byrne, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District. Many of the highway ramps that are the most active spots for panhandlers lead into downtown.

O’Byrne said he bases his opinion on panhandler interviews he conducted several years ago with the KCPD.

“Over 90 percent of them had homes and places to go,” he said, and the money went to drugs and alcohol.

“The folks on arterials are using homelessness as their guise to get money from people from the kindness of their hearts,” he said.

Service providers for the homeless said Thursday they weren’t comfortable painting all roadside panhandlers with such a broad brush.

”I wouldn’t put everyone in that category,” said the Rev. Joe Colaizzi, executive director of the Kansas City Rescue Mission, on Cherry Street at the eastern edge of downtown. He said his staff discourages clients from panhandling.

Loar’s co-sponsors are: Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, Councilwomen Alissia Canady and Heather Hall, and Councilmen Scott Taylor, Kevin McManus and Dan Fowler.

The ordinance goes to the council’s transportation and infrastructure for a public hearing.

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