Strict Law Not Strict Enough for Akron Council
First, one correction about the Akron Panhandling Law from the previous post. The new panhandling registration law proposed in Akron will not prevent an individual who has a previous criminal conviction from getting a license just those who violated the aggressive panhandling law. You will have to be photographed and have to wear that license around your neck.
What a strange town...
So, a lot happened Monday, June 19, regarding the massive epidemic of panhandling in Akron on Monday. It seems that the source of all problems that continues to keep pedestrians from visiting Akron is squarely on the shoulders of beggars. According to the Downtown beat cop who testified there are 5 or 6 panhandling spreading fear, plague, disease, bad feelings, and diverting downtown diners from local eateries by their overbearing requests for money during the day. The City held a hearing on their proposed panhandling ordinance and the Deputy Mayor, David Lieberth and I appeared on WCPN 90.3 to debate the issue (link to mp3 of the show).
From the callers to the show those in the outer ring suburbs do not like panhandlers and even former homeless people do not like panhandlers. From WCPN listeners e-mails, my assertion that pan handling is a form of petitioning the government is asinine. For most of the panhandlers this is a job, and so Akron is trying to professionalize these Unaffiliated Private Benevolence Officers or Itinerant Private Charitable Advisors. Deputy Mayor Lieberth kept interrupting and avoided the free speech and scarlet letter issues.
I then went to the hearing on the issue at the Akron City Council, which was bizarre. I felt like I had gone backwards from the land of OZ in color to the black and white land of Mayberry USA. I did get to meet Lieberth who was on the phone earlier who introduced the legislation and defended it. I am not sure how politically astute it was having a guy who looks like one of the oil barons of the industrial revolution or that banker in the wheelchair from Its a Wonderful Life be the guy who explains this offensive piece of legislation. No offense to Mr. Lieberth who seems nice enough, but I kept thinking that he was going to say, "Nothin' but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. [These panhandlers] are worth more dead than alive."
The Akron City Council members who were present actually wanted more severe legislation. They wondered if churches and schools could be included in the protected areas, because panhandlers prey (punny?) on spiritual people coming out of church with money. They also wondered why Akron had to give out licenses to people who have ignored tickets in the past. I bagged my prepared statement (which will be on our website soon) for fear they would try to make the legislation even more severe (strip searches, branding panhandlers, etc.) I was one of only two who testified in opposition to this ordinance. (Thank you to the member of Food Not Bombs Akron--Dana Williams who testified against the ordinance). The Council did not ask either one of us any questions, but on the positive side did not force us out of town on the nearest rail.
So, after a parade of business owners, police, the head of the Akron Art Museum, and the Evangelical Shelter testified in support of this disgraceful piece of legislation, I decided it was better to keep my comments brief and to the point. I pointed out that nearly every person that testified had mentioned problems with panhandlers that were covered by the existing law. Either the panhandler was aggressive, deceptive or on private property, which are all illegal under current Akron law. I pointed out that if existing law did not work what makes them think a new law will work that has not worked in any city in the United States and has not worked in any city for centuries. I said that it is hard to stand with a panhandler, but I hope that one of them has the courage to stand up against all the suits in the room and declare that this law is unconstitutional and vote against it. I get the feeling that Council will rubber stamp this proposal and will not act with courage, but we will see.
One of the funniest parts of the hearing was the story told by the female police captain, which she cited as justification for the new law. A woman was enjoying her lunch break and was approached by a panhandler or Unaffiliated Private Benevolence Officer in a local Downtown Akron park. When she went to her purse, the panhandler turned out to be a thief and grabbed her purse and ran. The police captain said that her boyfriend apprehended the guy because his prosthetic leg fell off when he was fleeing. I could not get this image out of my head of the one legged guy running away with the purse. The one-armed man in Bay Village inspired a television series and movie, and now it turns out the one legged thief in Akron inspired panhandling registration. I was surprised the Akron City Council did not grab onto this story and send the legal director back to see if was constitutional to remove the other leg of purse snatcher to slow them down even more.
It is not their fault, it seemed that most of the Akron City Council members are business men themselves. I will bet one is the barber and another owns the general store just like in Mayberry. I will bet that Andy, Barney and the guys stood around Howard's Barber Shop and came up with this registration plan. They are thinking of their own self interest and not the preservation of individual liberty or protection of free speech. But the Director of the Haven of Rest shelter in Akron and the Salvation Army are both especially shameful. To sell out their own clients is disgraceful. They wouldn't even have jobs if there were not all these holes in the safety net of healthcare and housing. If this great disparity did not exist in the pay for workers compared to CEOs they would be collecting tolls on I-80. The Director of Haven of Rest could not do outreach to the handful of panhandlers in Akron and provide help to keep them off drugs or get them treatment for their mental illness? He proclaimed, from his high horse, that the giving of alms to the poor is just enabling them. I hate when providers hide behind "enabling." It really means, "We are so rigid in our rules that we refuse to bend to individual needs, and we will blame the individual for their 'unreasonable' demands to be treated as a person not a number."
I am glad to be back in the world of color, and I have no doubt that Mayberry will pass this offensive law. I hope that since it does not seem that any council member will have courage the Itinerant Private Charitable Advisors will have courage to sue the City. I volunteer to help.
Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.