- Katie Wedell Staff Writer
Panhandlers in Dayton haven’t had to worry about being arrested in nearly a month because the city repealed its restrictive ordinance in July and a new law has yet to take effect.
As a result, the city and downtown organizations have received increased complaints about people begging for money, especially at hot spots near highway exit and entrance ramps.
“They were right back out there — I mean the day of,” said Karl Williamson, owner of Urban Krag Climbing Center and an Oregon District resident.
He recently called police about a panhandler, but because the city eliminated many of its restrictions July 13, he was told nothing could be done.
New rules, including a restriction on stepping into the roadway to take money from motorists, and a ban on aggressive panhandling, go into effect Aug. 18.
But some fear less-restrictive laws will not deter begging and will only serve to push panhandlers from their frequent spots near the highways and into more pedestrian-heavy areas of downtown.
“I’m sure when the ordinance in Dayton goes into effect that you can’t step into the roadway, (they’re all going to say), ‘Well, here’s what we can do. We can go to Riverscape,’ ” said Mike Martin, president of the Oregon District Business Association.
Martin hasn’t seen an increase in panhandling along Fifth Street since the law changed, but has witnessed aggressive panhandlers and thinks those provisions will be helpful.
“Obviously you want a secure environment for your customers,” Williamson said. “Especially with all the new development coming downtown, it’s going to be a hindrance. There’s millions of dollars being spent down here.”
Was law effective?
Dayton motorists likely are not surprised that the top three places for panhandling arrests during the city’s five-year crackdown were at highway entrances and exits in the city’s core.
The I-Team analyzed data on every panhandling arrest from 2011 to June of this year and found that the majority involved repeat offenders operating in a handful of hot spots. There were 215 individuals arrested, some more than 90 times each.
Our analysis found that police made more than 700 arrests, which differs from the 1,140 the department reported earlier this year.
About 50 percent of the arrests were for soliciting without a permit. Others were for panhandling after dark or in prohibited places.
The most active repeat offenders were arrested for the same violations within days or even hours of being released from jail.
“Dayton’s experience is not unique in that regard. Other cities have also found these laws to not be very effective,” said Joe Mead, volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Ohio.
“It makes sense that they wouldn’t be very effective. If you’re desperate enough that you need to beg for money the threat of arrest is not going to be a deterrent.”
Mead questioned the fiscal sense in repeatedly jailing panhandlers.
“Putting someone in jail is extraordinarily expensive compared to other ways that we could house the homeless. It just seems like such a counterproductive and inefficient use of resources,” he said.
But others liked the previous law.
“We certainly noticed,” Williamson said. “When I would call the police they would respond almost immediately and it cleaned them up.”
Needy or a scam?
Although many people believe that if they don’t give money to panhandlers they’d be less likely to hang around, Martin said, people in general have big hearts.
“It’s human nature,” he said.
Local residents said they’re happy to help those who are really in need, but it can be hard to tell who that is.
“If you could screen the ones that really need money that would be alright,” said Steve Fontaine of Dayton. “But everybody don’t. In that case you can’t stop the scammers.”
Ruth Tharpe, 49, was holding up a sign at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Keowee Street on Thursday morning. She was arrested four times under the old regulations, including once this June for panhandling in a prohibited place.
Her sign said she’s unemployed. She said she turned to begging because she’s caring for her sick mother, who needs a kidney transplant.
“I do this to help pay for her medicines because we just don’t have it. She’s got a loan against her house already,” Tharpe said. “I had to do something.”
Dayton’s regulations enacted in 2011 required people asking for money to obtain a soliciting permit and restricted begging to daylight hours and prohibited the activity in certain places, including near ATMs. The ordinance allowed police to arrest and jail violators, instead of just citing them.
But legal challenges in Akron and other cities ultimately forced Dayton to make changes to avoid litigation.
The problem the ACLU and other groups have with panhandling bans is that they restrict a person’s freedom of speech and freedom to ask for help, Mead said.
“The ACLU has long taken the position that the Dayton ordinance is unconstitutional,” he said. “Certainly, I’m glad that they have made changes to it.”
The new version of the law allows anyone to ask for money or hold up a sign with few restrictions on their location.
“If a panhandler simply stands there with a sign or even talks to people, but does not follow them or harass them, then that’s going to be protected speech under the First Amendment that our ability to regulate has been curtailed by the recent change in the case law,” said Troy Daniels, city of Dayton assistant prosecutor.
What panhandlers can’t do is step into the street to take money or any other items from a motorist, he said.
“We’re looking at conduct that actually created safety risks, like someone entering into the roadway,” Daniels said.
Training is being developed for police officers before they start enforcement of the new rules, city spokeswoman Toni Bankston wrote in an email.
What can be done?
Stakeholders agree there are many social issues that need to be addressed to truly decrease homelessness and panhandling, from addiction to mental health.
“We’ve got programs in place, but how can we better connect people with them?” said Sandy Gudorf, Downtown Dayton Partnership president.
The group hopes to meet soon with city and police leaders to discuss efforts to combat panhandling from a social services as well as law enforcement perspective, she said.
Educating the public about ways to give may be a part of the solution.
Williamson previously suggested the city adopt kindness meters — old parking meters used to collect donations for social service organizations rather than giving change to panhandlers. The meters have been touted in cities like San Francisco and Denver, although similar programs in Canada have been less successful and drawn criticism.
“It’s a much larger problem than people just begging for money … And it’s really kind of a topic that people don’t want to deal with,” he said. But Dayton is in a position to do something innovative, he said, “instead of just constantly tolerating.”