Aggressive Solicitation Part 2
This post will deal with the second main reason I will find it difficult to support Council Member Ostrow's and Council Member Remington's proposed Aggressive Solicitation amendments: my belief that criminalizing homelessness and poverty does not work. For more on my first reason, that the existing Aggressive Solicitation ordinance is more than sufficient to deal with people who are behaving badly, please see Part 1, below.
I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of Cathy ten Broeke, the Homelessness Coordinator for Minneapolis and Hennepin County, in the recent article in the Star Tribune: "I think we're all on the same page that we want to see panhandling end. We have to figure out what's the best way to get there by doing a lot of things and being absolutely sure we're not penalizing people for being homeless."
I also agree with Mayor Rybak that giving to panhandlers is a band-aid solution that will not help to really solve the problems of homelessness, poverty, chemical dependency and mental illness.
However, I believe that the most recently proposed ordinance amendment is another band-aid solution, that will similarly not help to really solve any of these intractable problems. Stating that "we're simply going to have a lower tolerance for panhandling" will not constructively address this issue. Panhandling will continue, and our "lower tolerance" will accomplish nothing but raising unreasonable expectations and wasting limited resources.
We have tried arresting (or ticketing) our way out of this problem, and it hasn't worked. It never will. The proposed amendment will create one more expectation among Minneapolis residents that the Police Department will never be able to deliver on: that the cops will prevent anyone from asking you for money after dark, or in a group, or near the Metrodome, or near the corner store, or anywhere near an intersection.
To come anywhere near meeting that expectation will require a truly drastic increase in the size of the police force. Minneapolis does not have money for such an increase, and given the budgetary environment, I don't expect that we will anytime soon. Even if we did, I firmly believe that these resources would be better spent connecting homeless persons to housing, impoverished persons to jobs, chronic inebriates to treatment, and persons experiencing mental illness to proper care. We have yet to fully and permanently fund the 24-7 Homeless Outreach Workers.
This is the main reason that the "Heading Home Hennepin" report on ending homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County - which gained unanimous support from the Council, as I continue to remind my colleagues - called for the City to "examine local ordinances to ensure that they are not criminalizing homelessness." This proposed ordinance moves us in the opposite direction from this adopted policy document, adding ordinances to further criminalize homelessness. The reason that the report recommends examining our ordinances is not just so that people are treated fairly and decently (though that would be nice), but because all the research and all the data prove what many of us have long suspected: the criminal justice system cannot effectively deal with these problems.
The best example of this is the so-called "Downtown 33." Here is a quote from the Heading Home Hennepin report: "A recent study of the Safe Zone Collaborative revealed that of the 33 top 'livability' offenders downtown, 85 percent of them gave a shelter as their address. These 33 offenders cost the system $3.7 million dollars over the years they were engaged with the system. Approximately 70 percent of these arrests lead to dismissals and do nothing to address the root causes of the problem." When we try to solve the problems of homelessness and poverty with the police department, it leads us to waste money on a colossal scale.
Finally, there is a civil rights argument to be made here. For some reason, my colleagues are extremely resistant to these sorts of arguments, but I feel they must still be made. People who don't have money have the constitutionally-protected right to ask others for money, even if they will use it to buy things we don't think they should have, like alcohol. People with money have the constitutionally-protected right to say "no," and make donations instead to organizations that will use their money to more constructive effect.
The City of Minneapolis used to have anti-panhandling and anti-vagrancy ordinances. These were struck down as being "void for vagueness." This means that the laws as written did not criminalize bad behavior, but speech which some residents and policymakers found objectionable: "can you spare some change?" The First Amendment prohibits government from regulating speech in that manner, so the ordinance was changed to prohibit behaviors that negatively impact others.
The Remington/Ostrow amendment seeks to return Minneapolis to a time before this decision. It would make large portions of the city (downtown) permanently off-limits for speech that some find objectionable, and the whole city off-limits during certain hours.
Interestingly, we would not apply these same sorts of restrictions to other forms of speech that most people would find more objectionable. For instance, one could stand on a street corner and loudly express one's view that members of a certain ethnic group are subhuman, but one could not stand at the same street corner and ask for bus fare. One could proselytize for Satanism outside an evening Twins game, but not ask for money for a hot dog.
I have a problem with us going down this road. Other time, place, manner regulations have clear justifications: we don't allow campaigning within a certain number of feet of a polling place because it might intimidate voters, you can't shout "fire!" in a crowded theater because someone might be trampled, etc. I am hard pressed to find a similarly compelling reason for Minneapolis to prevent people from panhandling at night, if they are doing so in a polite, respectful and non-threatening manner, in compliance with the existing ordinance.
Indeed, I would suggest that these changes might actually criminalize otherwaise positive and good beahvior. For example, imagine this: It is December 23 at about 8 pm in Minneapolis. It is dark. My mother in law, who is 80, is visiting and accidentally locks her keys and cell phone in her car. Most stores are closed, but there is a pay phone across the street. She has no money so wants to ask a passerby for change to call me so I can come help her. According to this law she would be prohibited from doing so.
(It is clear, of course, that this law would not be used against my mother in law. But that means that the proposed ordinance is just another law that will be open to selective enforcement against people of color, poor and homeless persons, etc.)
In summary, I am somewhat frustrated that instead of working to dismantle bad, discriminatory, possibly unconstitutional laws that waste our limited resources, the Council continues to discuss adding new ones. I can only hope that this proposal will meet the fate of last year's proposed ban on walking in alleys.