SALT LAKE CITY — A man who had lost both of his legs sat in a wheelchair on a sidewalk near Temple Square on Friday, holding a cardboard sign that read: "Anything helps. Thank you and God bless."
Below those words he had scrawled the phrase, "semper fi," the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps: "always faithful."
"This right here is one of our constitutional rights: freedom of expression, freedom of speech," said Bill, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Bill said he served in the Marines from 1982 to 2011. Within the past two years, he lost both of his legs to diabetes and infection. He said he can't find work, so he panhandles every day downtown, usually collecting about $60 daily, he said. That's enough to pay for his $45-per-night motel room, some tobacco and a meal.
Bill said he knows people don't always approve of panhandling, but he said nothing should stop him, or anyone, from politely asking passersby for money.
"I'd rather not be doing this," he said. "I'd rather be working. But I'm out here because right now, until I can get my Social Security, it's the only way I'll have money come in."
But most Salt Lake residents are frustrated with the presence of panhandling in Utah's capital city, according to a UtahPolicy.com poll released Friday. In fact, the poll shows nearly two-thirds of residents believe panhandling should be outlawed.
When 366 registered Salt Lake City voters were asked whether they think panhandling should be legal, 62 percent said no, while 29 percent said yes. Eight percent didn't know. The poll was conducted April 9-15 by Dan Jones & Associates. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percent.
"It's not too surprising," said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, which released a survey last year that found 20 percent of Utahns who avoid downtown say it's because of aggressive panhandling.
"Sometimes people look at panhandlers as kind of a monolithic group, even though that's not always a great way to look at them," Mathis said, adding that panhandling is not only an issue downtown, but also along the Wasatch Front.
But broad laws against panhandling have already been deemed unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment. A federal judge struck down a Utah anti-panhandling law in 2012.
Last year, the Utah Legislature took a more indirect step to address the issue through HB101, which specifically outlaws panhandling that is aggressive, impedes traffic, or is done within 10 feet of an ATM or an entrance of a bank. It is also already illegal on public transit.
Stewart Gollan, an attorney with the Utah Legal Clinic who successfully challenged Utah's previous anti-panhandling law, said it's already been established that fully outlawing panhandling is not the best solution to addressing the public's discomfort with panhandling.
"While I’m not surprised that people find panhandling to be speech they prefer not to hear, I think that’s a very different question than what the ramifications are of allowing government to confuse and criminalize certain kinds of speech," Gollan said.
That's why homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said instead of addressing the issue through strict laws, it's up to residents to help disengage from the trend.
"I know many people do not feel that they can pass by somebody who's begging for money, as they put it, based on religious convictions," Atkinson said. "But panhandling continues to the point of where it is now downtown only because people give. My feeling, of course, is that when one gives money to a panhandler, it's enabling that panhandler to actually continue their activities, whether it be drugs or alcohol."
Instead, people should refrain from giving money and only give food, clothes or other needed materials, she said, or even donate directly to the nonprofit agencies that provide services to homeless people.
In fact, under Utah's "Housing First" initiative — a program that places chronically homeless people in housing and supports them with services to help address the root causes of their homelessness — the state's chronic homelessness has dropped 91 percent in the past decade, state officials announced Tuesday.
But Mathis said Salt Lake City residents might be feeling panhandling is more prevalent because the city has seen a "spike" of aggressive panhandling due to drug use, which is why police have been working hard over the past few months to stop the aggression.
He said the UtahPolicy.com poll doesn't reflect what he's been hearing from business owners, who have noticed a decrease in panhandling in general due to increased police enforcement.
"Police are working hard to address it, but it's an issue that we'll always deal with," Mathis said. "So I think people need to understand we have a Constitution, and while some types of panhandling is protected, some are not, and really the best answer to address all panhandling is to not give money to panhandlers."
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