Indianapolis councilors eye new approach to panhandling

Fred Strader spends six days a week outside Circle Center Mall saying hello to passersby while hoping for money.

A new approach to the city's panhandling problem is in the works. This time, it's not coming from the mayor, but from three City-County councilors.

Democrats Maggie Lewis and Vop Osili, along with Republican Jeff Miller, traveled to San Antonio and Raleigh last week to see how those cities have addressed panhandling and came back with ideas they hope to explore here.

The trip, organized by Visit Indy, also included representatives from Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and the Horizon House.

It comes after the issue was put on hold in July after following resistance from several members of the Democratic-controlled council. They feared the mayor's plan to create a "panhandling-free zone" in downtown's mile-square area was too restrictive and subject to certain legal challenges by the ACLU of Indiana.

In the meantime, tourism and convention officials have continued to push for a tougher ordinance saying the city is losing events.

As Visit Indy's Chris Gahl told Eyewitness News last spring, "The perception is panhandling equals an unsafe city."

Miller said the group got a first-hand look at San Antonio's beefed-up ordinance. It bans solicitation within 50 feet of ATMs, parking meters, bus stops, outdoor dining areas and marked crosswalks - anywhere there's likely to be a monetary transaction.

"It's not arbitrary and it's tied to public safety," Miller said, noting it also hasn't been challenged by the ACLU.

Raleigh's ordinance meantime, requires panhandlers to get a permit. While it's free, they do need to register. Miller said city officials there found, most people asking for money never applied for the permit and those who did were subject to the rules.

He said the permitting process "also provides a better inventory of who's in need."

While Miller thought a combination of the two might work in Indianapolis, Osili said he was "more in favor of the 50-foot radius. I think it's more effective and I'm not sure the permit addresses the issue in a meaningful and tangible way."

Osili said his hope was to craft an ordinance by the end of this year. Like Miller he said he wants to make sure the ordinance somehow provides resources for those in need.

Fred Strader spends six days a week outside Circle Center Mall saying hello to passersby while hoping for money. He isn't crazy about a tougher ordinance.

Sitting on a bucket, smoking a cigarette he said, "I'm trying to help myself here. I'm trying to get a hotel room once a night. I'm not one of those troublemakers running up to that guy and saying give me some money or something to eat."

Still Jeff Smith, who co-owns Harry and Izzy's, thinks panhandlers do hurt the city's image.

Smith said if visitors "aren't used to it, there's a perceived notion that it might not be safe, but downtown is very safe. It's the perception that worries me."

That's why Smith is glad councilors are looking to San Antonio and other cities for ways to discourage panhandlers.

"If it works in San Antonio I think it would work here," he said. "It's [important] for businesses that something be done, that it's regulated. Everyone needs to be treated fairly but I do think you need to have rules."

Strader said he won't fight the law.

"If they tell me to move, I'll move, but if not, I'm going to just sit here and speak to people," he said, adding, "I just wish I had me a job so I could get off this corner."

Mayoral spokesman Marc Lotter said the mayor was happy to see councilors looking for solutions, but Ken Falk with the ACLU of Indiana said it was doubtful an ordinance similar to Raleigh's or San Antonio's would go unchallenged in Indianapolis.

"The idea of a permit for First Amendment expression strikes me as clearly unconstitutional," Falk said, noting he'll be eager to see the new proposal.