Indianapolis to consider downtown panhandling ban

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A proposal to prohibit all types of panhandling in downtown's mile-square area is headed to the City-County Council.

Republican Councilor Jeff Miller has introduced a proposal based on Mayor Greg Ballard's plan to address the issue. Instead of just banning "aggressive" panhandling the new city ordinance would include "passive" panhandling as well.

The move is strongly supported by Visit Indy, the organization responsible for drawing conventions, meetings and tourists to town. Spokesman Chris Gahl said over the past two years, the city has lost ten meetings because of panhandling concerns. He said "another 15 are teetering."

"The perception is panhandling equals an unsafe city," Gahl said.

He cited one meeting planner in town to check the city out who "for an entire city block downtown was chased by a panhandler asking for money."

Doug, a panhandler who usually sits at the corner of Illinois and Ohio Streets with a cup and sign said, "I never speak or ask for money because it's against the law."

Asked about the concerns Visit Indy has, he said, "I can understand that, but we're not hurting anyone."

Gahl said the problem wasn't "the individual per se, but the growing collection and quantity (of panhandlers) out at special times. It's almost as if they have a convention calendar at hand."

Doug said he often does.

"I go to the library and get a printout...what's coming up in the next month. If I know it's a good convention, I'll sit by the convention center," he said. Asked if gets more money when a convention is in town, he nodded yes.

Kim Ruechel, here from Alaska for a small convention said, "I did notice panhandlers, yes, very much...almost on every corner."

While Ruechel said she never felt threatened, she added, "I did get approached by someone at the convention center very intentionally asking for cash."

While that's already illegal, the new law would ban passive solicitation - what Doug does and even playing music for tips - something Tyler Garriott was doing on the Circle Wednesday afternoon.

Garriott wasn't quite sure why he'd be called a panhandler.

"I'm more like entertainment," he said. "You can listen to me or you don't have to. You can just walk by."

Gahl said while Visit Indy usually steered clear of "political issues," this was an important one. He said the 15 meetings "on the fence" represented an economic impact of $70 million. While Gahl declined to name them or the ones that passed on Indy because of "competitive reasons," he said they ranged from healthcare and high-tech groups to insurance and environmental organizations.

The proposal appears to face an uphill battle with the Democrat-controlled council. Several Democrats have expressed concerns the ordinance goes too far, violates free speech and would almost certainly wind up challenged in court, a legal battle they say the city can't afford.

The mayor's office says the ordinance is modeled after ones in several other cities including Ft. Lauderdale, where their ordinance was challenged and upheld.

The proposal will be introduced Monday, May 13 and likely referred to a council committee.