By Michael Kleen
“Excuse me,” a large man said in a loud, demanding voice, as I stood in line at my church’s pancake breakfast this past Sunday. The man pulled aside an elderly gentleman, and I overheard him ask for $20 to get to his daughter’s graduation at the McCormick Place in Chicago.
I cringed. Others tried to interject, but the boisterous man shouted that he was “just talking to my friend.” His “friend” said no. The man continued to insist. So, it went for several minutes, until the elderly man relented and gave him $20 just to go away.
A few days later, in a McDonald’s parking lot, another man approached me and asked for money because his ATM card (allegedly) wasn’t working.
This is a daily occurrence in Rockford. We have all seen the men holding signs along State Street or at bus stops. Many of us have been approached on the street in downtown Rockford. Often, a simple “no” will suffice. Other times, the beggars are more insistent and follow their target down the street. There is rarely anyone around to help.
All of this is bad for Rockford. Aggressive panhandling has gotten out of control in our city — it chases away customers from business districts, makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and gives Rockford a negative reputation. It is a form of emotional and financial abuse.
It would be unconstitutional to outright ban panhandling. Instead, we need to better enforce the laws we already have on the books, tighten restrictions, and better inform the public about where and when panhandling is against the law.
The Rockford Police Department has published a pamphlet called “Don’t Give Where it Won’t Help,” which explains Rockford’s current ordinance regarding aggressive panhandling. This pamphlet is available for free and should be in every store, church and public building in Rockford. Panhandling, it turns out, is prohibited within 20 feet of a church or place of worship. That should have been explained to the determined panhandler at my church last Sunday.
Panhandling is also prohibited in Rockford after sunset and before sunrise. During daylight hours, it is prohibited at a bus stop, in any public transportation facility, in a vehicle that is parked or stopped on a public street, in a sidewalk café, in a public parking garage, within 20 feet of a retirement or nursing home, within 20 feet of an ATM machine, and within 20 feet of a residential living facility where people with physical or developmental disabilities are the primary residents.
The ordinance specifically prohibits touching, blocking a person’s path, or preventing entrance or exit of a building, following, using profane or abusive language, or soliciting as a group during an act of panhandling. It is important for citizens of Rockford to know these restrictions and inform their friends and relatives, as well as visitors from out of town. Education, however, is not enough.
Rockford needs to get serious about controlling panhandling because it has a negative effect on the local economy. Panhandlers intimidate and scare away potential customers from business districts. For example, I suspect the nuisance caused by beggars who wander around downtown Rockford is one reason people avoid going down there.
Consequently, Rockford’s ordinance against aggressive panhandling (sec. 19-42) should be strengthened. I encourage our city council to add the following restrictions to panhandling during daylight hours: 1) Within 50 feet of a business, museum or office building. 2) In a public park. 3) On private property, unless the panhandler is in physical possession of written permission from the owner or lawful occupant thereof.
I would also criminalize false or misleading solicitation. This would include making false or untrue statements, disguising oneself as a veteran or disabled, or using money obtained for a specific purpose (e.g., food or gas) to be spent on anything else (e.g., liquor). The City of Orlando, Fla., Municipal Code provides a good example to follow.
Community service would be a suitable punishment for these offenses, and I would even go so far as to say the community service should be compensated at minimum wage, so that the offender learns to associate income with work rather than handouts.
We ought to have a compassionate and generous society, but giving money to panhandlers is counterproductive because that money is often spent to feed an addiction. Rockford is known for its charities and social services. Anyone in need can find food, clothing and shelter. There is no reason for them to beg on the street. By strengthening our laws against aggressive panhandling, and by educating the public about those laws, we can go a long way toward removing this social problem.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. He was the Republican candidate for Rockford mayor in the 2013 election. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the June 26-July 2, 2013, issue