The Ann Arbor City Council will soon review the recommendations of the city’s Panhandling Taskforce concerning the fate of many of Ann Arbor’s homeless. The taskforce seeks to stiffen current legislation prohibiting panhandling around some of Ann Arbor’s downtown commercial districts. These changes have been proposed in light of complaints and potential safety issues arising from fears of aggressive panhandling. The recommendations call for an expansion of the panhandling-free halo around Automated Teller Machines from 10 feet to 25 feet, prohibit sitting or lying on the sidewalk and restrict panhandling near the entrances to Nickels Arcade on State and Maynard Streets.

This proposal is off base in its mission, which, despite statements from Ann Arbor officials and task force members, is not aimed at assisting the homeless. Outreach and education programs provided for in the 1996 ordinance were an attempt to support the city’s homeless, but the current proposal offers little assistance to residents with the greatest needs. Theirs is often a life of drug abuse, violence, and hardship, issues addressed in the 1996 ordinance, which in attempting to remove the homeless from the State Street area, also made an effort to assist in getting them medical and psychological help.

Despite the related benefits to the homeless bundled into the 1996 ordinance, the city’s current panhandling restrictions are prone to capricious and discriminatory enforcement. Arbitrary and baseless criteria about whom to arrest and how to enforce the ordinance can easily lead to overzealous police action. The homeless are particularly susceptible to improper persecution and conviction due to limited financial resources.

Unfortunately, this current package of regulations offers inadequate provisions for Ann Arbor’s homeless, content instead to further restrict the rights of the homeless for the supposed benefit of commerce. This intention of the proposal is betrayed by business owners like English Language Arts Inc. owner Peter Marshall, who collected signatures to remove panhandlers on parts of nine streets. These streets were all heavily populated by businesses, whose connection to the homeless problem seems to go only so far as their desire for a comfortable sales environment. Understandably concerned about paying customers, these owners have lost some of their concern for those who cannot afford their wares.

The current direction of the taskforce is disquieting, as it betrays a resignation on the part of the city and of local business owners in finding a more diplomatic solution to a complicated and tragic situation. The taskforce claims it is seeking solutions to safety concerns arising from panhandling, for it knows all too well the moral and legal implications of pushing the homeless “out of sight, out of mind.” This raises an important question: are the homeless actually perpetuating crime or are civic leaders simply unwilling to look at the poor? Understandable, given that the image of a man begging for change is one not easily forgotten from the comfortable interior of an Ann Arbor boutique.

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