Indy considering ordinance to deter panhandling

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Two Republicans on the City-County Council are behind a proposed ordinance to deter panhandling downtown.

It would prohibit anyone from sitting or lying on a city street or sidewalk in the Mile Square area between 6 a.m. and midnight.

Minority Leader Michael McQuillen is a co-sponsor with fellow Republican Councilor Susie Cordi.

It comes as Indianapolis has seen an "uptick in problems involving panhandling," as well as concerns about the growing homeless population downtown.

"We want our visitors to feel safe and people have not felt as safe as they did," McQuillen said. "My concern for the people who are homeless is we have shelters...we have places for them to go to get help, which they need. As far as the panhandlers, we have no sympathy. They need to be somewhere other than harassing people."

McQuillen said the proposed ordinance is based one in Oklahoma City. Other cities have them, too, and they are not without controversy, with opponents saying they "criminalize" people who are homeless.

Ben, who often sits at the corner of Meridian and Washington with a cup and sign asking for help said he's been homeless for a year-and-a-half. He said he'd prefer not to beg but feels he currently has few choices.

"I wasn't doing so good," he said after moving from Fort Wayne. "Losing my job and then I had all my stuff stolen, my Social Security card and ID."

Under the proposed no sit, no lie ordinance, Ben could no longer do what he does, sit on the corner and hope people drop coins in his cup. The same goes for people who sleep on the sidewalk.

Ben said he sees both sides.

"I seen a lot of fights between homeless on corners and that's probably an issue," he said.

McQuillen said the goal of no sit, no lie is get people who are truly homeless to places that can help them. As for enforcement, as currently proposed, it would fall on police. Referring to a woman who regularly sits on the Circle, McQuillen said, "she would be offered a ride to the nearest shelter."

And if she refused to go?

"There's a chance she would be ticketed," he said.

William Bumphus, who manages Wheeler Mission's Shelter for Men said, "that's the one thing that concerns us...I'm sure any homeless advocate would not want to see a person locked up or having a record for sitting on the curb or laying on the curb...our standpoint is not to vilify or criminalize those out there on the streets."

The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention - or CHIP - made clear it's strongly opposed to a no sit, no lie ordinance in Indianapolis.

A statement attributed to Caleb Sutton, Interim Executive Director of CHIP said:

"Recently, a federal appeals court ruled on a case in Idaho that said prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution. Currently, our City does not have the capacity to house individuals experiencing homelessness during the day, given the fact most shelters only open in the evening. Before we start criminalizing individuals experiencing homelessness, we need to focus our efforts on finding a safe place for these individuals to go if we don't want them sleeping on city streets. We look forward to working with members of the vetting committee on this issue."

Asked what they thought, a couple visiting Indianapolis said they were definitely aware of the people camped out on sidewalks and street corners.

"But there's not anybody coming up to us trying to get anything, but they're around," Lauren Kanning said.

York Gill added, "Sad, it's definitely sad. You want to see them get help."

Part of the challenge, how do you distinguish someone truly in need from a panhandler, who works the corners, then goes home?

A group of people from the outlying counties that calls themselves the "BAG Ladies" - for "Blessed And Grateful" - visits downtown Indy once a month with wagons filled with food, clothing and toiletries.

They come to minister to the homeless, no questions asked.

When told about "no sit, no lie," Annette Steedman said it was a bad idea.

"I could be homeless in a minute," she said. "I'm retired, but if i lost my job, had a fire, or lost my spouse, that could be me."

Stephen Fountain, who works downtown, also questioned the approach.

"I'm not sure what the underlying cause is, but do see more of it," he said. "I don't see it as a violent issue...for us, it's more of a visual eyesore."

Fountain said he thought the no sit, no lie ordinance, "may increase the number of tickets authorities write, they may arrest more people, but I don't see how it will be a solution to the problem."

The proposed ordinance will be introduced at the next council meeting, which is September 25. Democratic Councilor Jared Evans said while he couldn't "speak for all Democrats, I'm not aware of anyone supporting it."

Evans said he worried with it "focused on the Mile Square area, it would be forcing (the problem) into other areas of the city."

He also said most shelters are not equipped to deal with drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues. But he also said some of the problems occuring involving harrassment and intimidation need to be addressed and he was "happy we're staring the conversation."