As the city of Rochester prepares to polish its downtown with sparkling new medical and public facilities, city leaders once again are trying to subdue a long-standing, image-tarnishing issue: panhandling.
This time it’s coming with an added complication, after an unrelated U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion protesting zones is raising questions about how far cities can keep panhandlers at bay.
Rochester’s proposed ordinance follows the lead of Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities around the country that limit where and how people can ask for money on public sidewalks and streets.
The issue prompted a vetoed ordinance in Rochester four years ago but resurfaced after “several council members were starting to receive complaints about panhandling that was going beyond the typical standing-with-a-sign-type of a request,” Rochester City Attorney Terry Adkins said. Examples included panhandlers following a person or “verbally accosting them,” he said.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit people from asking for money in certain manners and in certain places, including within 15 feet of ATMs, public restrooms and sidewalk cafes. It would particularly target “aggressive panhandling,” including bans on touching, following, blocking, using obscene gestures or abusive language. It also would forbid panhandlers from approaching parked, stopped or moving vehicles on public streets.
“We wouldn’t want anybody standing on a median for their own safety,” City Council President Randy Staver said.
Panhandlers still would be able to stand, sit or perform music with a sign outside the prohibited zones.
Before citing someone, police would warn and instruct panhandlers about the ordinance and penalties and let them know about available services, Staver said.
Laws under scrutiny
Similar panhandling laws have come under challenge in Worcester, Mass. A federal appeals court there declined to stop the city from enforcing most of the prohibitions.
But lawyers plan to appeal based on a Supreme Court decision in an unrelated case that struck down a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding abortion clinics in that state.
Though it is a different social issue, some legal experts contend the high court’s decision could affect panhandling laws — especially in cities that create large buffer zones around financial institutions, eating spaces and other places.
Hamline University law Prof. Marie Failinger said challenges to panhandling ordinances nationwide will depend on the context of each case.
“I could see more lawsuits coming out of this,” she said. “I think that gives helpful language to anybody that files a lawsuit against these begging ordinances.” But Failinger said she suspects courts would allow the ordinances to stay in effect in very narrowly restricted areas.
University of Minnesota law Prof. Heidi Kitrosser said courts generally have been deferential to the reasons cities give in such cases. One of the factors for cities, Kitrosser said, is whether there are less restrictive means to achieve the same goal. That could include using laws against harassment, for instance.
Cities could argue that panhandling is very different from abortion protesting, Kitrosser said, and could focus on potential crime with people pulling out their wallets. Cities also might argue that there is not as much speech value in asking for money vs. exchanging ideas over abortion, Kitrosser said.
Decisions in each case would be driven by the specific facts presented, law professors said, meaning a buffer-zone ordinance could withstand a challenge in one city but not another.
Adkins said he thinks Rochester’s proposed ordinance will be fine because its prohibited panhandling zones are only 15 feet. He said the Supreme Court case revolved around a 35-foot abortion clinic buffer zone that did not allow activists to approach women going into the clinic to talk and offer literature and took away the only contact they could have with the person.
Under Rochester’s proposed ordinance, panhandlers “can stand 16 feet away from the ATM — just before they get to the ATM — and say, ‘Could I have a dollar to make it through the day,’ or something of that nature,” Adkins said. “That’s a world of difference, it seems to me.”
Adkins said that he has researched panhandling ordinances around the country and that 15 to 20 feet seems to be a common buffer distance.
Some cities certainly have larger zones, though. In Minneapolis, for instance, the no-soliciting zone around ATMs is 80 feet; around entrances and exits to parks, playgrounds and public entertainment venues, it’s 50 feet. A Hennepin County judge upheld the Minneapolis ordinance in 2011.
Such large zones might be more open to legal challenges, law professors said.
‘Trying to be helpful’
Failinger said cities seem to pass panhandling ordinances in waves, often during difficult economic times or when leaders are trying to gentrify certain areas.
The Rochester City Council passed a 2010 ordinance to license panhandlers. Licenses would have been free and available to all, but applicants would have been required to hear about available services before getting a license. The mayor vetoed the measure.
The new proposal is on the City Council agenda Monday night, but it’s unknown whether there will be a vote.
“We’re trying to be helpful. But we’re also trying to be responsive, quite honestly, to downtown businesses and some of our visitors that may be more uncomfortable,” said Staver, the council president.
The ordinance is coming as Rochester is getting an influx of state money for its Destination Medical Center project to improve infrastructure in concert with expansion at the Mayo Clinic. Staver said the ordinance is “somewhat intertwined, I suppose, but not directly.”
Staver said council members may make changes to the proposed ordinance.
“It’s not entirely clear how the public is going to respond and how big this problem is,” Adkins said.