Government & Politics

Amid confusion over KC council’s proposed panhandler bill, committee pulls back

The proposed ordinance that carefully avoided any mention of panhandling sparked two-plus hours of often emotional testimony at City Hall Thursday morning about ... panhandling

And pedestrian safety. And homelessness. And opioid addiction. And free speech. And catcalls to women.

By the hearing’s end, the City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee agreed to send the proposal back to the drawing board in an effort to clarify exactly what problems its seven co-sponsors, led by Councilwoman Teresa Loar, are trying to address.

“I wish there was an ordinance that would solve every issue that was raised here today,” said Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who is not a co-sponsor.

Supporters initially framed the ordinance, introduced last week, as a pedestrian safety measure. It prohibits pedestrians from doing anything on medians, traffic islands or highway ramps other than crossing safely to the other side. Those lingering, for whatever the reason, could face a fine of up to $500 or as much as six months in jail.

The real intent of the measure, introduced at the request of Kansas City police after hearing numerous complaints from neighborhood groups, is to bar roadside panhandling. But because solicitation is constitutionally protected speech, the ordinance never spells that out.

A slideshow by police Lt. Doug Niemeier, the department’s liaison to City Manager Troy Schulte, captured the confusion.

He began with data about an increase in accidents involving pedestrians, but quickly branched off into photos of homeless encampments under highway overpasses and the costs of cleaning them up.

Justus said that as written, the ordinance doesn’t really address any of the problems police cited. Even without mentioning panhandling, it still raises legal issues.

Under the proposal, “I can’t stand on a median with a ‘Go Royals’ sign,” she said.

Councilman Jermaine Reed, the committee chairman, expressed concern about “unintended consequences.”

More than 70 people signed up to speak about the measure. Opponents said it needlessly punishes those on the margins of society without doing anything to help them change their lives.

“I believe that this ordinance further criminalizes poverty, addiction and homelessness under the guise of pedestrian safety,” said Austin Strassle, a housing stabilization specialist at Truman Medical Center.

Others suggested that the strong sentiments about panhandling were less about public safety and more about such vivid manifestations of suffering in their communities.

Winifred White, who lives in the Indian Mound neighborhood of Northeast Kansas City, said it was a matter of “hiding behind a lot of shame we feel ourselves.”

There was also impassioned testimony from all corners of the city about the menace and blight created by often-aggressive panhandlers who bang on car windows and verbally harass women.

Teresa Givens, who operates Learn A Lot Child Care on Sterling Avenue near the Interstate-70 ramps, was on the edge of tears as she described encountering men asleep in the doorway of her building, and the urine, feces and drug paraphernalia they leave behind.

“I’ve lost almost 50 parents” because of the conditions, Givens said.

Another point of contention was how many of the panhandlers are actually homeless.

“There’s a big difference between collecting money to live and hustling. And we’ve got a lot of hustling,” said realtor Terrell Walls.

Vickie Riddle, former executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said in a statement read to the panel that her organization’s hundreds of volunteers have established through interviews that no more than 7 percent to 9 percent are homeless.

Riddle said she supported the ordinance.

“It will help law enforcement deal with those persons feigning homelessness and allow officers to provide vital information to those that truly are in need of housing,” she said.

The other co-sponsors of the ordinance are: Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, Councilwomen Heather Hall and Alissia Canady, and Councilmen Scott Taylor, Kevin McManus and Dan Fowler.

Justus said she would work with co-sponsors to retool the ordinance. It will be heard by the committee again on Sept. 27.

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