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Overton: Who cares about loitering?

BY JON OVERTON | SEPTEMBER 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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If recent news articles are any indicator, there’s nothing more terrifying to a business owner than a group of loiterers.

I can think of a few things more intimidating than a guy holding a goofy sign who sells his own books or panhandlers asking for 75 cents, but to hear some people tell it, the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and Satan himself couldn’t compare with 15 to 20 loiterers.

On Tuesday evening, the City Council passed an ordinance that restricted various behaviors downtown such as panhandling in certain areas, sleeping on benches (5 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and planters, storing personal property, and using public electrical outlets without permission.

It’s understood that the new rules are directed at a specific group of people who frequently loiter at the north entrance to the Pedestrian Mall. The way some local business owners and city councilors spoke about the loiterers in recent weeks, you’d think they were a fearsome horde of druggies who scare away potential customers.

But virtually everyone I spoke to in downtown Iowa City over the past few days didn’t think loitering was a huge deal.

When I asked people if they would change anything about downtown, many struggled to answer. Some griped about parking, the changing skyline, insufficient lighting, and drunks.

Granted, I only talked to about 15 people, so this isn’t scientific by any means, but from professors, to students, and ordinary residents of the Iowa City area, the loiterers weren’t cited as a big source of distress downtown.

Andrew Branan, a Ph.D. candidate at the UI, said he doesn’t believe the loiterers are a real nuisance.

“I can understand why some people maybe feel threatened if it’s something they’re not accustomed to,” he said. “Personally, I’ve never had any problems with them, but I don’t own a business down there.”

Others were less sympathetic about the City Council and business owners.

Elise Fillpot, the project director of TRiO Student Support Services and the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, said she thought the new ordinance was ridiculous.

“I frequent the businesses downtown, but if I knew which ones had advocated for [the ordinance], I would … boycott them,” she said. “I really think this is a travesty. They’re criminalizing human occupation of the Ped Mall. It’s a public space. That Ped Mall doesn’t exist just for those businesses to have their whims catered to by the City Council.”

Geoffrey Hacker, an Iowa City resident of 40 years who works at a local grocery store, said he often hangs out with the loiterers on the Ped Mall. He said the ordinance should have been passed in smaller pieces, but it probably won’t have a big effect.

“They had an ordinance before this, but [the police] didn’t enforce it well enough,” he said. “They didn’t enforce that old one, and I thought they should enforce that old one before they enforced the new one.”

One street performer and author on the Ped Mall identified himself as B.C. the Black Clown. He typically makes humorous signs and sells his books. He doesn’t think the new rules will affect him too much.

“They’re changing the rules, so I’ll have to go inside [the Ped Mall] farther, but that’s the only difference,” he said.

Just be careful whom you ask for spare change, you might frighten the business owners.


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