PORTLAND — After hearing testimony from nearly two dozen residents, the City Council on Monday unanimously voted into law a ban on loitering in street medians – a measure critics have said is a thinly disguised attempt to stamp out panhandling in the city.
The ban, which was proposed a year ago, but failed in a previous council vote, passed this time, 6-0, with Councilors John Anton, Jill Duson and Cheryl Leeman absent. The law will take effect Aug. 15.
Speaking in support of the ban Monday were neighborhood leaders, business people and police. As they did last year, supporters said the ban wasn’t focused on people asking others for money, but on the safety of anyone who perches in the median strips, surrounded by traffic.
This year, the issue of safety struck some as increasingly dire.
“We understand that panhandling is a First Amendment right, but the reason we are here today is a public safety concern, or what I would call a public safety emergency,” Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the council.
Police are dealing with what has been called an “explosion” of panhandling in the city, and Sauschuck cited statistics that seemed to bear out that description.
In the first five months of 2013, calls to police about incidents involving panhandlers increased 25 percent over the same period last year, from 169 to 212 calls, he said. In both years, roughly 60 percent of the calls were about panhandlers standing in median strips.
Sauschuck said that people loitering on median strips are a safety hazard to themselves, to other pedestrians and to motorists – regardless of whether the strip-standers are there to panhandle, display political signs or advertising, or for other purposes.
He read dispatcher descriptions of some of the incidents, which included panhandlers in danger of falling into the street or causing motorists to brake unexpectedly. “Each of these is a tragedy waiting to happen,” Sauschuck said, calling the ban a “common-sense, reasonable approach” to preventing such tragedies.
However, opinion Monday about the ban was as divisive as the median strips.
Opponents claimed the ban takes away attention and resources from poverty, homelessness and other problems that lead to panhandling – problems that carry safety risks of their own.
“We must remember that public safety concerns do not end at the median,” said Dee Clarke, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice. She said 30 homeless people died in Portland last year as a result of inadequate housing and social services, and that the average lifespan of someone who is homeless is 20 years less than that of someone who is not.
“Who’s calling 911 for them?” she asked.
But Doug Fuss, immediate past president of Portland’s Downtown District, told the council it was misleading to link the ban with the problem of homelessness, since only about 17 percent of homeless individuals engage in panhandling, he claimed.
He said it was “absolutely proper” that the city pass laws to protect the safety of panhandlers and others.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has already spoken out against the ban, and on Monday, ACLU Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden repeated the group’s opposition.
“We feel it goes too far,” he said to the council. “Although there are real problems, the Constitution does not allow you to address them with such a broad stroke.”
Ultimately, the opposition wasn’t enough to sway councilors.
The city’s neighborhood prosecutor, attorney Trish McAllister, has already assured the council that because it prohibits “any person” from staying in a median – not merely pandhandlers – the ordinance is not unconstitutional.
The word “panhandling” doesn’t even appear in the new law, Councilor Ed Suslovic pointed out. Suslovic chairs the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which voted unanimously last month to recommend approval of the ordinance.
Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who voted against the ban last year, said he had reconsidered the issue and could now support the ordinance.
“It’s an issue of free speech versus safety,” Mavodones said before casting his vote, “but there’s a balance here, an equilibrium.”