The Oklahoma City Council voted unanimously Tuesday morning to introduce an ordinance that prohibits panhandlers on medians. It would also remove exceptions that let certain groups engage in the activity as long as they have the proper $200 permit, which allows groups like firefighters to conduct their “Fill the Boot” campaigns.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer introduced the proposal and called panhandling a city-wide problem, and said she hopes the ordinance is a tiny piece of a larger effort to solve problems of poverty and homelessness.
But Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid says panhandling doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and accused the council of acting in ways that are hostile to Oklahoma City’s homeless population, like moving the city’s main transit hub away from downtown Oklahoma City to the intersection of Martin Luther King and Reno Aves.
“If our only solution is to look towards incarceration for addiction, to look at fines, criminalizing behavior – it is not going to work, it has never worked, and it’s not going to work in the future,” Shadid said.
About half-a-dozen residents voiced their concerns. A formal public comment hearing takes place Sept. 29, but Mayor Mick Cornett allowed those who showed up Tuesday to speak in order to save them an additional trip.
Oklahoma City resident Carol Sullivan said she’s supportive of ways to reduce poverty and homelessness, but said she’s concerned about taking resources away from an already-strapped police force.
“We have a lot of real crime in the city, and it just bothers me that we’re going to have to take those resources away from protecting us from these crimes to enforce a ban on median panhandling,” Sullivan said.
Ranya O’Conner, the editor of the Curbside Chronicle, a newspaper primarily distributed by homeless individuals, said in a social media post the ordinance would limit their sales to public sidewalks, and Oklahoma City doesn’t have enough high foot-traffic areas to support the paper:
We fear there will be many unintended consequences to an ordinance like this. It will increase the number of homeless in our community, starting with the numerous Curbside Chronicle vendors reliant on magazine sales to sustain their housing. It will make it more difficult to house and employ people who become homeless because of the ordinance. Individuals in poverty who choose to continue to solicit on the median will be issued hefty fines, that many will be unable to pay, leading to jail time for their offense. Misdemeanor convictions, unpaid fines, and outstanding bench warrants are a significant barrier to securing housing and employment for people. This ordinance will add to that burden making it harder for people to find jobs and get into and sustain housing. Finally, it will likely increase panhandling in downtown and in Bricktown, in parking lots, and other places where people walk.
Resident Tom Furlong told the council he wants to see giving to panhandlers outlawed.
“The reason we have panhandling is because people flip them five or ten dollars because their conscience hurts,” Furlong said. “Ministry without involvement is wrong, and if you give these people money, you’re enabling them to continue in this sinful lifestyle.”
He said many other cities will ticket a driver for disrupting traffic if they stop for a panhandler.
A final hearing on the proposed ordinance comes October 13.
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