Kansas City’s panhandling proposal would wage war on the poor

Kansas City officials aren’t wrong to want to rein in panhandling. But criminalizing being poor, homeless or mentally ill is not the best way to go about it.

A proposed ordinance would essentially ban panhandling, but it could violate individuals’ First Amendment rights. And if passed, the measure’s clever wording wouldn’t be enough to head off the legal quagmire that would surely follow.

A city ordinance already prohibits aggressive panhandling. But it is rarely enforced because of constitutional worries.

There are similar issues with the latest proposal introduced by Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar. The 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.

It’s an expertly written measure that basically bans people from asking for money from motorists stopped in traffic. It also may be unconstitutional.

The city should not be in the business of penalizing people for being poor. Municipal violations carry fines and possibly small amounts of jail time.

Panhandlers are protected by First Amendment rights to free expression. They can beg practically anywhere they please on a public street. Laws to ban the practice have been thrown out by courts across the country.

Advocates for the ordinance say most panhandlers in the metro area are not homeless but are street-level hustlers. There may be some truth to that, but generally speaking, most people don’t want to live a life of begging. And drivers and passersby always have the right to decline a panhandler’s request.

Framing the issue as a criminal one is a naive argument that misses the mark. Ordering rank-and-file officers to enforce the ordinance would pull them away from more pressing duties, including reducing violent crime and protecting property.

The measure does not address the underlying causes of homelessness: poverty, a lack of affordable housing, substance abuse and dwindling funds for mental health issues.

What are city leaders doing to tackle those problems?

Some cities around the nation have opened daytime assistance shelters where homeless people can take showers, do laundry and get other kinds of help such as rides to shelters and contact information for aid organizations.

But Kansas City is not the most hospitable when it comes to addressing the needs of poor people. And this ordinance is another example.

Sure, the measure might meet the objective of reducing panhandling in the short term. But a losing legal battle could prove to be costly and counterproductive.

Addressing the root causes that force people to the streets to beg in the first place would be a much better long-term solution.