You could be a panhandler, too

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Minneapolis’ new “time, place and manner” restrictions passed by its city council last Friday to protect you from “aggressive” panhandlers may also protect everyone else in the city if you try to sell them a ticket for your church raffle or approach them with a petition to endorse your favorite political candidate. “We were definitely thinking about solicitors,” said Public Safety and Regulatory Services Chair Don Samuels yesterday. “What we were looking at was being aggressive—anyone who because of the time and place is just felt to be intimidating—not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Samuels said.

Time and place, as defined by the city’s “aggressive solicitation” ordinance includes positions within 50 feet of parks, sporting facilities and the Minneapolis Convention Center, and within 10 feet of crosswalks, convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores. Soliciting donations is also prohibited by people in groups of two or more and is not allowed at night—from one half-hour before sunset to one half-hour after sunrise.

The new amendment ventures even further into the realm of free speech than its previous incarnation—the May 2004 amendment to Title 15, Chapter 385 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances relating to Offenses—an attempt to broaden the scope of what had been previously defined as “aggressive solicitation.” Observers of both the Minneapolis City Council and the U.S. Constitution may find this particularly ironic in light of a March 2004 decision by a Hennepin County District Court that said the existing panhandler statute violated the First Amendment because of no compelling argument for the state to restrict begging and that the statute itself was too broadly drawn.

“I’ve never been aggressively panhandled myself,” said Samuels, “but many of our council members have been repeatedly,” he said.

A column in one of last month’s issues of the Star and Tribune told of how former Council President Jackie Cherryhomes had to tell “three geeky white guys and a lady,” evangelists who were preaching in Fairview Park, to “stay away from my [10-year-old] daughter,” Cherryhomes was quoted as saying.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak has also been reported as being in favor of more stringent laws against aggressive solicitation, telling constituents to dial 911 immediately if they feel threatened.

Letters from the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) directed to Rybak and the City Council, respectively, and obtained by Pulse through the Minneapolis Council on Crime and Justice, both expressed opposition to the new city amendment.

“The City of Minneapolis already prohibits aggressive forms of solicitation and these proposed amendments are not needed,” wrote ACLU-MN Executive Director Charles Samuelson. “This mean-spirited attack on the most vulnerable residents of the city will only serve to exacerbate the problem of poverty and homelessness and we respectfully urge you to instead adopt measures that are aimed at reducing homelessness and poverty in the great City of Minneapolis,” he wrote.

Similarly, NLCHP “urge[d] the Council to reject the proposed amendments and consider a more constructive approach to the issue.”

According to the City of Minneapolis’ website, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners and the Minneapolis City Council approved “Heading Home Hennepin: The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County” in late 2006. Efforts under the plan made in March of last year resulted in 157 people receiving immediate medical care, 305 people receiving housing information, four families and three individuals being placed into permanent housing, 200 people receiving employment assistance information, and 20 people being given immediate full-time job placements, according to information provided by the city.

Although holding signs and engaging in nonverbal solicitation is excepted from current regulation, “It depends on how aggressively they [are] holding the sign,” said Samuels.