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Portland City Council Prohibits Panhandling on Traffic Medians

Thursday, July 18, 2013
Portland, Maine — Roadside panhandlers who seek money from motorists will have to move elsewhere following the City Council’s unanimous approval of a measure that bans panhandling by people standing on traffic islands.

The ordinance, which goes into effect in 30 days, doesn’t specifically mention panhandling but makes it illegal for anyone to loiter on highway medians.

Police Chief Mike Sauschuck said an upsurge in the number of homeless people looking for roadside handouts is a tragedy waiting to happen. There have been reports of near misses with vehicles, intoxicated panhandlers stumbling in traffic, and even altercations among homeless people jockeying for the best location.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said the ban adopted Monday night is unconstitutional and that it’s considering legal action.

Sauschuck said the police department acknowledges that panhandling has been determined by the courts to be protected by the First Amendment.

“This is not a panhandling issue. This is narrowly focused on the median strip issue that we’ve seen explode in the city of Portland,” he said.

A survey of Maine’s homeless population counted nearly 1,200 people who didn’t have a place to live in January. Of that total, 480 were in Portland, where the city’s main shelter is often overcrowded with mattresses tossed on the floor.

Opponents of the median strip loitering ban said people should do more to care for and feed homeless people if they’re worried about their safety.

“The safety of our people is not just about the median. The safety of our people is about having a safe place to sleep. That’s really what’s needed. That’s the answer right there,” said Dianne Clarke, who goes by her nickname “dee,” from Homeless Voices for Justice.

The Portland City Council previously rejected the same proposal a year.

But councilors changed their tune when Sauschuck showed up with data and a plea for help. City business leaders also expressed concerns.

Many cities are dealing with the issue.

This year, Sarasota, Fla., adopted a panhandling ordinance keeping people away from certain street corners, and Newington, N.H., also adopted a ban on soliciting money from motorists. Worcester, Mass., was sued after it adopted several anti-panhandling measures including one that bans soliciting money from motorists.

During the past year, the number of roadside panhandlers has grown in Portland, which already has a law banning aggressive panhandling.

Sauschuck said officials are trying to keep people safe, not ban panhandling.

“We want to be proactive as a police department and a community to address situations before the tragedy occurs,” he said.

Homeless advocates, however, point out that while dozens of homeless people died during the past year, none of them died from panhandling.

“No matter what happens with the median, people are still hungry. They’re still homeless. They’re still suffering in poverty,” Clarke said.

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