City eyes panhandling moves

BY JOSEPH BELK | MARCH 30, 2010 7:30 AM

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Michael Daniels stood at the intersection of Washington and Dubuque Streets while his fiancée, Bonnie Brookhart, sat on the ground. Loose change and rolled up dollar bills sat in the plastic coffee can at his feet.

“I just hold my sign up,” Daniels said. “If you want to give, you give.”

Daniels, 48, said he’s OK with the measures Iowa City officials have taken on panhandling — such as requiring that solicitors stay 10 feet from the entrances of businesses.

“I usually make sure I’m a pretty good distance from the entrances of businesses,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to bother anybody.”

Now, city officials are considering additional measures. Business owners have proposed extending the minimum distance panhandlers must be from their entrances to 20 feet and instituting a new program to use old parking meters to collect change. Signs would urge pedestrians to put change in the meter, which would then be distributed to social programs, instead of paying the panhandlers directly.

City officials would likely use older mechanical meters being phased out, “taking the guts out” to accommodate the change. They would place the them in areas where panhandlers commonly solicit, said Jeff Davidson, the city’s director of planning and community development.

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Downtown Association President Leah Cohen noted that several cities have instituted the meter program effectively. Iowa City officials are looking at Denver and Chattanooga, Tenn., as examples.

Randall Wilson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said he was in favor of the parking-meter program, though he would prefer the city use more public appropriations to combat homelessness.

“The problem of homelessness and people who are down and out is huge, and putting up a parking meter won’t solve it,” he said.

A 2008 Iowa City ordinance prohibits soliciting in an aggressive manner and restricts solicitation within 10 feet of business entrances, a distance Cohen said some feel is inadequate.

“People tend to not want to go to certain corners because they feel threatened,” she said.

Wilson said businesses had a right to “clear the doorways to a certain degree,” but the city should exercise caution when implementing or expanding on a panhandling ordinance.

“Any regulation of soliciting is a regulation of free speech,” he said. “Whatever they do has to leave ample opportunity for soliciting.”

Iowa City officials expressed concern that panhandlers target Iowa City because college students are more likely to donate, an assertion supported by a 2002 study from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

Officials from Chapel Hill, N.C., home of the University of North Carolina, said they had similar concerns before enacting an ordinance in 2003 to address aggressive and nighttime panhandling.

Chapel Hill Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said officials were careful when drafting the ordinance to ensure that it was constitutional.

Daniels, who lives with his fiancée in Coralville, said he has no objection to any of the proposed ordinances.

He’s turned to soliciting change as a temporary solution to help pay off more than $12,000 in court fines.

“[That’s] probably a good thing,” Daniels said. “Hopefully, by that time, I won’t have to worry about panhandling.”

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