Short Relief: Panhandling is not the way Portland life should be

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I use the Franklin Street exit off of Interstate 295 to get to and from work. As a result, I pass several of the busier spots for panhandling in Portland.

There is usually someone at the base of the northbound ramp, someone on the median of Marginal Way, south of the ramp, someone on the median of Franklin, on the east side of the intersection, and someone on the median of Somerset, east of Franklin near Whole Foods.

Most of them appear to be able-bodied, although I do recall one guy on crutches and a lady in a wheelchair. There’s a lot of turnover and few regulars. Sometimes the changing happens as I am passing by. Someone walks over and takes another’s place. Usually, they exchange some words. It does not appear to be uncivil. There’s also a pile of trash accumulating at the base of the exit ramp.

All of these people have signs. Most are a variation on a common plea for money. One said “this is embarrassing for me too.” I was struck by the juxtaposition of the woman whose sign said she had just arrived in Portland and needed help and, within a week, the man whose sign said he needed help to get out of Portland.

My recollection is that panhandlers appeared on Portland intersections and median strips about three or four years ago. It seemed to be fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park. There seem to be more now than ever – notwithstanding the fact that Maine’s unemployment rate, and Portland’s in particular, are the lowest in eight years.

In 2012, the chief of police addressed the City Council’s public safety committee about the issue. That July, the council voted 6-3 to reject an amendment to the city code that would have banned, in the interest of safety, standing, sitting or staying on a median strip.

People complained and the committee revisited the matter. Twenty-one people addressed the committee at its June 2013 meeting. Of those, one opposed the amendment, two were ambivalent, and the rest favored it. None identified themselves as a panhandler. The council voted 6-0 to pass the amendment in July.

One panhandler and two political protesters sued. In February 2014, a federal judge expressed skepticism about the city’s public safety rationale. He ruled that the amendment was an unconstitutional, over-broad, content-based limitation on speech in a traditional public forum.

The city appealed, arguing there was no other way to address its concern about safety.

The U.S. Court of Appeals didn’t believe the city, either. Last month, it held that the amendment prohibited virtually all activity and speech on all median strips, yet the city only demonstrated that a few were dangerous, and didn’t seriously try to find a better-tailored solution to the problem. It suggested several ways that Portland could have written a constitutional ordinance.

Everything about the panhandling situation in Portland is unfortunate, beginning with people begging for money. It gives the misleading impression that Portland is stingy. It’s lamentable that no one dares to seriously investigate the situation. Everyone just projects their biases and prejudices on it. It’s an absurd way to try to solve a problem.

Theoretically, a legislative body like our City Council investigates a problem before it enacts a solution. It holds hearings to take evidence and hear from witnesses about the problem, its causes and possible solutions. In this case, that would include taking testimony from some of the panhandlers about who they are, where they come from, and why they are begging for money. That didn’t happen.

It’s embarrassing.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.