2015-05-28 / Front Page

Councilors Revisit Panhandling

By Tom Walsh

A resolution that could lead to restrictions on panhandling was approved by the Newport City Council on Wednesday, May 27. The vote was 4 to 3, and followed the councilors' discussions on the adequacy of laws already on the books, whether constitutional rights would be hindered, and the extent to which soliciting along roadways presents public safety concerns.

The resolution asks interim City Solicitor Christopher Behan to recommend an ordinance “to not only protect such solicitors but also the public at large with due deference to the constitutional rights of persons to engage in soliciting activities."

The resolution maintains that panhandling in high-traffic areas of the city has “raised safety concerns” and that “certain actions are not properly regulated and endanger such solicitors or other persons using the roadways, highways and rights of way in the city of Newport.”

The resolution stems, at least in part, from sightings of the same people, a man and woman, over the past eight or nine months, panhandling at the intersections of Bellevue Avenue and Memorial Drive and Spring Street and Memorial Drive in Newport. In Middletown, panhandlers have also often been seen where East Main and West Main roads join.

City Councilors Kathryn E. Leonard, Marco T. Camacho and John F. Florez sponsored the resolution. Two years ago, the City Council defeated a proposed ordinance to regulate panhandling by a 4-3 vote.

“What we’re finding is that there are more and more people panhandling,” Leonard told Newport This Week. “We should help people so they don’t have to panhandle. You’ve got to protect people who need services.”

Representing the Third Ward, Leonard said constituents have complained to her about panhandling. “There have been lots of them,” she said of the complaints. “They say they’re stopped at a traffic light and are still talking to these people and now they’re tying up traffic.”

At-large representative Florez said, “It is important to know that this is in no way a condemnation of the homeless. Here in Newport we have a lot of services to help the homeless out.”

However, Florez maintained that there are people from other communities who come into Newport to panhandle just for the day. “They come in, set up shop, and then go back to their own communities,” he said. The councilor also expressed concern over the impact that panhandling has on Newport as a tourist destination.

Newport Police declined to comment on the resolution. “At this time Newport Police will have no comment on the proposed ordinance,” said Sgt. Jonathan Cortes. Both Lucy’s Hearth in Middletown and the McKinney Shelter in Newport were contacted for this story but did not offer a comment. Interim City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson was contacted but said, through a spokesperson, that it was a City Council matter.

Florez, who said that he has also heard constituent complaints about panhandling, said communities elsewhere have enacted ordinances that require panhandlers to pay for licenses issued by the municipality where they solicit. “The resolution simply asks the city solicitor to come up with language that has been effective elsewhere,” he said. “I don’t think this would stop it, but it could reduce it significantly.”

He said there is “a fine line” on this issue between what can legally be done and what would violate the First Amendment. Indeed, the resolution states that “the City of Newport desires to protect the rights of all people to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

“We’re trying to say that we don’t want to break the rules or violate the First Amendment,” Leonard said.

At the meeting, Councilors Lynn Ceglie, Justin McLaughlin, and Naomi Neville were not convinced that an ordinance is needed. "I haven't heard from people in my community that this is a big problem," said McLaughlin. Ceglie considered the issue a "waste of time," citing constitutional concerns and the counterintuitive premise of fining panhandlers.

Around the nation, other municipalities have adopted guidelines restricting panhandling. For example:

San Antonio, Tex., has a “50-foot rule” that bans “passive solicitation” within 50 feet of a marked crosswalk.

Indianapolis, Ind., bans panhandling within 50 feet of ATMs, bank entrances and exits, check cashing businesses, restaurant entrances and exits, public parking garages and parking lot pay stations.

Raleigh, N.C., requires panhandlers to obtain a city permit to beg and also bans panhandling within school zones, within 100 feet of ATMs, and within 20 feet of any business, residence or outdoor dining area. Further, Raleigh bans panhandlers who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, make threatening statements or use abusive language, or who beg

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