Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Panhandler law may end if not renewed today

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati's panhandler registration law could end next month if City Council members don't renew it when they discuss it today.

The law requires people to get a license to verbally ask passersby for money. The registration is just a piece of the city's overall law against aggressive panhandlingand is the only part up for reconsideration today.

Two council members opposed the law Tuesday during a vote in the Law and Public Safety Committee. Councilman John Cranley said he thought the city's panhandling problem was "a little bit better," but he was not convinced it's because of the registration, which requires panhandlers to carry a photo identification.

He and Councilman Christopher Smitherman voted against renewing the law. Smitherman said it was the job of city officials to look out for its most vulnerable citizens and said he was concerned about registering poor people.

Tuesday's vote came after testimony from opponents, including Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. She and other coalition members said registration criminalizes homelessness.

But police and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. officials, a group that promotes downtown, insist the measure has helped. Officers have made 155 total panhandling arrests in the last nine months - 28 people arrested for soliciting without a license, some of them multiple times for a total of 55 arrests.

Panhandlers who break the law can have their registration revoked; after that, police can arrest panhandlers for begging without a license even if they haven't otherwise broken the law. If convicted, aggressive panhandlers can face up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

The city has issued 285 panhandling permits, but officials said it's unclear how many went to people protesting the law. Capt. James Whalen, District 1 commander, said he expected enforcement to be low. Officers would rather see the panhandlers get some help rather than time behind bars, he said.

Everyone who testified supported Brent Chasteen, the outreach social worker paid by Downtown Cincinnati Inc. to talk to panhandlers to get them off the streets and into housing and treatment.

Council members David Pepper, committee chairman, Jim Tarbell and Pat DeWine supported the measure.

Councilman Sam Malone said panhandling can be intimidating and can contribute to the perception an area is unsafe. He said he was leaning to voting for renewal.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece and Councilwoman Laketa Cole could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon on how they'll vote today.


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