Proposed panhandling ordinance discussed

Downtown business owners, social service agency representatives and City of Rockford officials discussed a proposed aggressive panhandling ordinance during an Aug. 29 special meeting in the Public Safety Building. Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) moderated the dialogue about the issue, which business owners stressed was hurting them.

Paragon owner Mary Olson said panhandlers stationed themselves in the business’ adjacent parking lot. According to Olson, panhandlers recently tried to charge people $3 a car to park in the city lot and attempted to act as valets. She also said they made their way into her business and asked for money.

Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio owner Paul Sletten said panhandling is a never-ending problem: “They don’t go away. They move from place to place.” Sletten said it’s struck fear in customers and employees alike.

Kryptonite owner Chris Wachowiak said the proposed ordinance “almost empowers us. In order to build a good house, you need proper tools.” .

Executive Director Stanley Campbell, of Rockford Urban Ministries, said the ordinance was “excellent,” stressing how social services could also help solve the panhandling problem. Campbell said the more social services accessed could mean less panhandling.

Though not speaking directly to Campbell’s point, City of Rockford Human Resources Director George Davis agreed. Davis noted addiction and opportunity are the driving forces of panhandling, not homelessness. According to Davis, no evidence or statistics exist that correlates them.

Rockford Rescue Mission’s Patrick Clinton responded to one retailer’s concern about people being “dumped” in Rockford. Clinton said nearly 30 people have been paroled to the mission since the beginning of the year. He noted more of those parolees are from Winnebago County.

Jeanette Hay of Promised Land Employment Service wondered how the police department could enforce the ordinance, while addressing issues in other parts of the city.

Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson assured those in attendance his force was up to the challenge.

“Panhandling will be another ‘quality of life’ issue. We’ll embrace (the ordinance) and enforce (the ordinance) all over the city of Rockford,” Epperson said.

City Attorney Jennifer Cacciapaglia stressed she drafted the proposed ordinance to deal with panhandling throughout the city, not just in the downtown area.

But American Red Cross Rock River Chapter Homeless Shelter Director Doug Cross said church brings him downtown. Cross suggested the ordinance deal with panhandlers approaching people outside of churches, as well.

Ironically, according to Kortman Gallery Director Doc Slafkosky, having a thriving downtown may be the culprit. “The downtown has become more successful. So, it’s creating this problem,” he said. Slafkosky said panhandlers are taking advantage of residents’ “urban naiveté.” He noted the Memphis, Tenn., officials installed parking meters, which were designated for certain social service agencies. Slafkosky said that could help alleviate economic pressure panhandlers put on government and private funds.

Campbell asked Mark about the chances of the ordinance passing. Mark said he expected it to gain City Council approval. According to Mark, the proposed ordinance is slated to come before the City Council Codes and Regulations Committee Sept. 11. If it’s approved at that meeting, the ordinance could be read in Sept. 18. Mark said the final vote could possibly take place Sept. 25 or Oct. 2.

The meeting, Mark said, was a good way for the public to discuss an issue. He said it showed that people support and want a panhandling ordinance. Mark said it will help “craft an ordinance that everyone will come together and embrace.”

Luan Dean, co-owner of Lula’s Vintage Boutique, said she doesn’t experience as many panhandling problems, since her business is only open during the day. But Dean said she frequents downtown businesses, that are open at night. She said she’s approached a number of times. Dean has operated her business for three years, but she’s lived in the Rockford area for more than 10 years. Dean has lived in Atlanta and Las Vegas, which also have panhandling issues. While acknowledging comparatively little experience with panhandlers, Dean said, “I definitely want to be proactive.”

From the Sept. 6-12, 2006, issue

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