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In our opinion: Cities vs. panhandlers: People asking for money is hurting businesses

Published: Friday, Nov. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

As begging increases, business owners approach City Hall complaining that people asking for money are hurting business.

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Nationwide, cities are attempting to do battle with panhandlers. This may be a natural outgrowth of a sluggish economy. As begging increases, business owners approach City Hall complaining that people asking for money are hurting sales. They lobby for an ordinance that would curb the practice.

It happened recently in Boise, where the ACLU now has sued to stop enforcement of a new law. City leaders in Baltimore are working on a similar ordinance, as are leaders in Indianapolis. All are trying to craft restrictions in such a way that they protect businesses and don’t run afoul of judges who have been ruling that, while aggressive begging does not have to be tolerated, panhandling in general is protected speech.

Several cities in Utah, including Salt Lake City, have been forced to abandon ordinances in recent years for this reason. A judge ruled a Utah panhandling law unconstitutional.

This is an issue with many facets and complications, but it also is one with some underlying simplicities. Regardless of the constitutional issues at stake, cities ought to be finding ways to deal with their homeless and destitute populations, rather than just seeking ways to push them out of sight.

To that end, Utah does an admirable job. The recently released 2013 Utah Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, a state report, found that chronic homelessness in Utah fell by 9.5 percent over the previous year. But the report said overall homelessness is up in the state; it’s just that most homeless people do not stay that way long enough, or enough consecutive days, to qualify as chronic.

More states ought to follow Northern Utah’s example of helping the homeless regain a footing in society. Panhandling, however, is often a problem separate from this population.

Some panhandlers make a living off of begging and misrepresent themselves. Many of these stake out territories and use methods designed to yield the best results. They are the ones who exasperate merchants and sometimes annoy commuters and tourists alike. It has so far proven difficult, however, for governments to pass laws that curtail the “professional” beggars while still allowing someone who truly is destitute to ask for help.

Some cities try to outlaw begging within a certain vicinity of an ATM or a business, trying to protect people from undo intimidation. Others try to control what passive panhandlers can post on signs.

These problems are not new. Back in 1937, during the second economic dip that constituted the Great Depression, a writer in the Chicago Tribune told of his encounters with “professional” beggars during a trip to New York City. He quoted official sources as saying these people take between $20 and $25 a day, which was real money at the time.

History, then, teaches that it may be impossible to eradicate that sort of thing. But really, coming into contact with such people is a small price to pay to allow the truly needy to make their problems known. That, in turn, can help cities find ways to interact and deal with those who need help.

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