After being unanimously approved by the Ann Arbor City Council on May 2, some city officials say the amendment that calls for panhandlers to gain formal permission to be on city property hasn’t proved to be as effective as anticipated.
The council began working on the panhandling legislation in September 2010, when the city’s Downtown Marketing Task Force — a group that aims to ensure a safe and clean downtown area — first convened after a year of talks between the Ann Arbor City Council and Mayor John Hieftje. During this time, city council invited merchants, police officers, panhandlers, University officials and homeless organizations to voice their concerns about the upswing of panhandling and offer possible solutions.
The meetings yielded a 42-page report — published at the end of the task force’s six-month assignment in March — recommending a “program of educational outreach to the community” and an amendment to the city’s panhandling ordinances.
Tom Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association, said the number of panhandlers on State Street, South University Avenue and Main Street this summer has been “about the same” as previous summers, a time when community members often claim to notice an influx of panhandlers.
Heywood added that with a decreased number of police officers following this year’s city budget cuts, as well as the Ann Arbor Police Department’s need to address more urgent matters — like the recent spate of sexual assaults — enforcement of the panhandling amendment was expected to be relegated.
“Enforcement is always going to be dependent on resources, and we haven’t had beat cops in a while, a couple of years,” he said. “When you have things like sexual assaults, the police department, the University and the city are going to spend more time working on those kinds of things than something like panhandling. That’s just the reality of how you triage things.”
While he said he understands the Ann Arbor Police Department’s prioritization, he said the task force has worked to regulate the issue to some degree, adding the city will never be fully able to eliminate panhandling since preventing citizens to engage in such acts is violating their first amendment right to free speech.
“I think that Ann Arbor does an outstanding job trying to deal with the entire problem … ” Heywood said. “It’s just going to be with us all the time … You’re never going to eliminate it, and you’re never going to have complete control of this as long as people have the right to express themselves.”
Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) agreed enforcement of the amendment has remained ineffective thus far.
“We heard from people who lived downtown who complained that they couldn’t walk two blocks from their home without being followed down the street, without being confronted by people demanding money, without feeling like they needed to cross the street to avoid people,” Briere said.
She added that though an absence of data has made it difficult for her to fully assess the amendment’s impact, there are a few indicators it has been successful in curbing panhandling. She said this includes a lowered amount of complaints from the community and a decrease in news coverage of panhandling incidents.
However, she said she couldn’t fully determine if the apparent decrease is because of the amendment or the possibility that panhandlers didn’t choose Ann Arbor as a destination this year.
Briere said she is also concerned about the uninitiated panhandling education program that was created by the March report because the task force hasn’t been active since February 4.
“As a committee, we asked that the task force be reinvigorated and take on this responsibility of providing the education,” Briere said. “And that’s been not as effective a request, unfortunately, as I would’ve liked to see. We need the cooperation of downtown residents and merchants. We need the support of the businesses in order to do this.”
Briere nonetheless said she remains confident about the future of the panhandling education program and the city’s initiatives to aid the homeless. When students return in the fall, she said she hopes to discuss the issue with the University and the Michigan Student Assembly to institute those measures, adding that by then she expects to convince the task force to reconstitute.