Decision on panhandling preliminary injunction

As the Telegram reports [$], Judge Timothy Hillman “refused to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the city’s panhandling ordinances.”

Because I know many of you enjoy reading legal decisions during your lunch hour, I’ve posted the decision (which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read deeply) onto Google Docs.


Only the little people follow the panhandling ordinance

Rick Rushton, quoted in the T&G article [$] “Rushton: Panhandling in Worcester has gotten even worse” (September 19, 2012):

“I’m even thinking about proposing an ordinance to ban solicitation of any type on street corners.”

Rick Rushton campaign standout, Newton Square, October 3, 2013:

 Mayor Joe Petty, quoted by WBZ, July 27, 2012:

“I’ve just seen it grow. Almost every square here in the City of Worcester, we’re seeing panhandlers.”

Mayor Joe Petty, standout at Park and Salisbury, September 28, 2013:


Rick Rushton, quoted in GoLocal Worcester, June 27, 2012:

“This city has so many panhandlers.  It’s clear when a women on the corner of Park and Salisbury Street is driving away in her car and they’re getting dropped off in vans.  There’s something wrong here.”

Isn’t there, though?

In Worcester, it’s perfectly ok to pass an ordinance that few elected officials bothered to read.

In Worcester, it’s perfectly ok to ask me for something worth $4-5 (that is, my vote) at the intersection of Park and Salisbury Street, near a bus stop, and then drive away in your car.

But woe betide the hungry person who asks another for assistance.

I would say “For shame”, but obviously many members of the City Council feel none.

(Pan)handle with care

As Mike previously noted, the city is beginning an education campaign to both signholders (panhandlers) and now — from the looks of DPW’s Facebook page — residents:

A few notes:

From my reading of the ordinance — and I am NOT a lawyer — it seemed that panhandling in the road was not allowed, but there was no discussion of panhandling AT a roadway. The handouts both seem to indicate that panhandling AT a roadway is now not allowed.

From the wording of the DPW handout, it seems that a resident might think that “offering money” at an intersection, median, or rotary is prohibited.  It is not.

The DPW handout instructs residents to call the police — not the panhandling outreach program.

And — of course — the handout reiterates that we’re not restricting people’s rights to free speech, and that it doesn’t target one group or one activity.

I’m not sure how this is different from the billboard solution, and I’m not sure why we think signholders will trust the outreach worker when the public is being told to call the cops when they see someone asking for help.

Billboards are not the solution

(Title courtesy of a Robert Z. Nemeth column of 31 July 2005, “Balance prosperity with compassion”)

I know some of you disagree with me about panhandling.

That’s okay.

Disagreement is healthy.  Informed debate is what allows us to (hopefully) come to compromises and workable solutions.

In Worcester, we don’t have much informed debate.  We usually hover between decrees from above and mobs with pitchforks.

I don’t think there’s anyone in Worcester who’s pro-poverty.

I don’t think there’s even anyone who’s pro-panhandling.

I don’t know anyone who wants to see people begging on the side of the road.  I don’t know anyone who feels comfortable at that sight.

I think this is something we all have in common.

But panhandling is not the problem.

We’re talking about panhandling because it is visible, in the same way that street-level prostitution is visible.

Visible issues like panhandling and prostitution are a symptom of larger societal problems.

We lack a will and an imagination to tackle the larger problems (drug abuse, poverty, and mental illness, among others), and instead focus our brief attention spans on what we see when we get off 290.

We’re not working on — or even talking about — the larger problems, so the visible issues will keep appearing.

How many times a year do we have a push for prostitution stings in Main South?  Has that ever stopped prostitutes or johns from coming back?

How much effort was expended seven years ago on a panhandling education campaign?  It was so ineffective that it doesn’t seem to have stuck in the mind of any councilors.

I don’t think any councilors remember that in 2007 there was a three-year plan to end homelessness.

The plan had a lot of objectives, but it’s unclear whether any of them have been accomplished (except for closing the PIP and establishing a triage center).

Objective 2.2 was “Increase Educational Efforts to Develop an Early Warning System to Target those At risk of Homelessness.”  What is more of an early warning than someone begging on a streetcorner?

Objective 4.1 was to have a 0.5 FTE position to coordinate programs for the homeless  That definitely didn’t happen.  Ditto Objective 4.2, which was to have a commission on homelessness (with 0.5 FTE, paid, from the city side, to support that).

Jordan Levy was supposed to hit up the colleges for developing housing for the homeless (Objective 5.2) and have businesses provide job opportunities (Objective 3.3.1).

There’s a lot of good stuff in here.  It’s probably not a perfect plan, but it did require people doing something besides just asking for a report from the city manager when someone on the street asks them for money.

It does not matter what “side” you are on.

We can do better than this.

But it requires that we ask for real solutions and that we demand real conversations.

Brochures are not the solution for a short attention span on the part of our elected officials.

Billboards are not the solution for a lack of follow-through.

Groundhog Day

Mike wrote a great summary of the current plan to end panhandling.

In case you need a reminder that we’ve already been down this road before, here’s how the 2012 plan stacks up to the 2005 plan:

Then: Panhandling is protected free speech under the first amendment
Now: Panhandling is protected free speech under the first amendment

Then: If someone is aggressively panhandling, threatening, or otherwise breaking the law, call 911
Now: If someone is aggressively panhandling, threatening, or otherwise breaking the law, call 911

Then: If someone is passively panhandling, and should be referred for services, call First Call for Help
Now: If someone is passively panhandling, and should be referred for services, call DPW Customer Service

Then: Nothing comes between us and our tag days
Now: Nothing comes between us and our tag days

Then:  “Several local social service agencies … are collaborating on an interagency service response plan to support the solution via outreach to the individuals who panhandle.”
Now:  SMOC will provide an “outreach worker [who] will comb city streets, sidewalks, parks, bridges, etc. during both business and non-business hours to assist individuals engaged in panhandling who my be in need of services.”  In addition, “the outreach worker will work collaboratively with the Worcester Police in cases where panhandling interferes with public safety or any other potential criminal activity is identified. … The Worcester Police will dedicate a liaison to work with the outreach worker as needed.”

[Aside: when the panhandlers find out that the outreach worker’s primary city contact is the WPD, and that the outreach worker would work hand-in-hand with the WPD, I wonder what reason they will have to trust the outreach worker.]

Then: A public education campaign to discourage residents from giving money to panhandlers and to encourage them to give to social service agencies.  This included a one-page flyer in excise tax bills, followed by “print and broadcast media coverage, billboards, posters, street sign postings, … and bus placard advertisements.
Now:  A public education campaign to discourage residents from giving money to panhandlers and to encourage them to give to social service agencies.  “This multi-faceted campaign would include radio, print, broadcast, web-based, social media, signage, billboards, buses, informational sessions, and more.”

[Aside: Facebook for the win!]

Reminder: The current plan to end panhandling — which should not be confused with the previous plan to end panhandling — will be discussed at this Tuesday’s City Council meeting.  The meeting will be at 6:00pm in the Esther Howland Chamber at City Hall.  If you care about this, you need to email your City Councilors or show up at the meeting.

I will be writing more about this in the coming days (and weeks and months).  But you need to do your part and let the Council know how you feel about a recycled plan that didn’t work seven years ago.