One of Ann Arbor’s distinguishing features is its accepting and tolerant atmosphere. People from around the state flock here for events such as the Ann Arbor Art Fair, Hash Bash, political rallies and vigils. The city council, however, may take action today that would betray this image by passing an ordinance that would take a harder line against panhandling. It would allow police to arrest “aggressive panhandlers” without a filed complaint. This ordinance may please some members of the business community and some of the city’s residents, but this violation of certain citizens’ rights is not a solution to the problem of homelessness in Ann Arbor. The city council should reject this ordinance as it is not in accordance with the city’s historic values and fails to recognize that no one’s rights are less valuable than another’s.
Already, there are limits as to where panhandlers may and may not stand. Admittedly, the city implemented many of the current restrictions, such as the one stating that panhandling is not allowed within 10 feet of an automated teller machine, with the intention of protecting the safety of other citizens. But the current proposal goes too far.
Currently, victims of aggressive panhandling have to file a formal complaint with the police department. This can prevent frivolous accusations from being made. Panhandlers in turn, do not, for the most part, behave violently, in part because of the possibility of having a complaint filed against them. In addition, panhandlers are not inherently dangerous or violent.
If passed, the ordinance would allow police to use their own discretion to define “aggressive.” Hopefully, the police would utilize this power only against truly violent offenders, but to put such power into their hands would subject panhandlers to potential discriminatory inconsistency. This is why the current system, in which citizens must file a formal complaint, is preferable: It ensures that only panhandlers who truly warrant attention take the brunt of the law.
A recent incident of aggressive panhandling resulting in the incarceration of one bad apple of the panhandling world, Lamark Curry, has set off a wave of sensationalism about the dangers of panhandlers. Curry was charged and sentenced to prison time for his behavior, which included open intoxication and public urination. The new ordinance comes largely in response to this incident, when in fact, authorities successfully charged Curry for the offending actions, not solely for panhandling. While this example is cited as a reason why the additional panhandling regulations are necessary, it proves that those same regulations are superfluous.
The proposed ordinance also is a successful or efficient way of dealing with the city’s homeless problem. There are measures underway in the area to help the homeless and addicts rehabilitate themselves, including a new homeless shelter. Rehabilitation and assistance for the homeless is a far more effective and humane way of preventing situations such as the Curry incident. It will also serve a greater good for the city. But in the same vein as supporting their rehabilitation, residents should support panhandler’s freedoms; they are people who deserve equal rights as does any other citizen.
Being a stronghold of progressive thought, Ann Arbor is not a city many would expect to pass such stringent city ordinances. Officials should reject this reactive piece of legislation and recognize the rights of all those who call Ann Arbor home.