The complete replacement of Evanston’s existing Panhandling and Soliciting Ordinance with a rewritten law faced opposition from both the public and the Human Services Committee members at the March 5 meeting. The proposed rewrite was held in committee for revision and future discussion. Prospects for any actual changes are now unknown.
The new ordinance would distinguish between “passive” and “aggressive” panhandling, using a “reasonable person” standard to determine what qualifies as “aggressive.” The ordinance would also distinguish among locations, creating definitions of “areas with heightened personal security concerns,” “areas with heightened personal privacy concerns,” and “areas with heightened public safety concerns.”
Aggressive panhandling – such as to cause a reasonable person to fear for safety – would be prohibited everywhere. Passive panhandling would be “regulated” or prohibited in areas of heightened personal safety or privacy. Given the definitions, the new ordinance could be read to prohibit panhandling within 20 feet of any building or business entrance, virtually eliminating all of downtown Evanston.
Citizen comment before the committee members was universally opposed to the new ordinance. Jackie Prince, who regularly addresses Council and describes herself as homeless, said, “I would like you to actually speak to panhandlers and find out why they’re asking.” She said panhandling was “a way to ask for help without compromising your morals or values.” If there is any criminal activity, she added, you call the police. Asking for money, though, “is not criminal activity.”
Alex Morgan warned against lengthy legal entanglements should the City adopt the proposed changes. “These ordinances have been struck down across the country,” he said.
Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless said, “We feel these revisions are bringing the City in the wrong direction.” Her organization views panhandling as a way to identify members of the community in the greatest need, she said.
Further, “the penalties are unreasonable,” Ms. Loellbach added. “Fining panhandlers does not make a lot of sense,” and a community service requirement can be “problematic.” The penalty provision is one section that remains unchanged. The current ordinance provides for a fine or community service as well.
Doug Sharp of Reclaim Evanston said he felt the revised ordinance would “criminalize poverty” and behavior designed to feed individuals and their families. He said the City should stop giving handouts to developers and focus on the neediest residents.
Ted Smuckler of Open Communities said, “We are wondering what problem it is seeking to solve that is not solved by other City ordinances” such as assault or aggressive behavior laws.
When it came time for the committee to speak, Chair Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, whose November referral led to the proposed amended ordinance, said, “While it is on our agenda for action, it is my intention to keep this in committee.” She said that at “every ward meeting I have, panhandling is an issue” raised by residents.
“There are people who are very needy, but there are also people who do this as a business,” she said. “We do have a problem…”
Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she had serious reservations with the proposed changes. She said she understood a restriction within 20 feet of an ATM, a restriction that exists in the current panhandling ordinance as well. But other aspects she found troubling, including the penalties. “We need to offer something else,” she said. “Not arresting people.”
Restricting all of downtown made it feel like the City was “targeting a group of people instead of targeting behavior,” said Ald. Fleming. While encountering panhandlers may not be “the most pleasant experience, it’s part of the urban” lifestyle. “Obviously, if you are panhandling, you want to be in a space where there are people.” If the City decided to stick with its 20 feet buffer zone around building entrances, Ald. Fleming said there should be a ban on all soliciting – not just panhandling – be it Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, or other charities asking for money on Evanston sidewalks.
“This whole proposed ordinance needs a lot of reworking,” said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. She said the City should work to “help the people we see on our street that are in the greatest need.” She acknowledged that when students returned, the panhandler population seemed to increase, but said the law needed more information about street congestion, and “just exactly what the problem is we are trying to address.”
The measure may return in coming months, but there is no current timetable for revisions.