Groups debate value of Dayton’s panhandling laws

City considers changes after courts ruled similar laws unconstitutional.Some believe rules had helped people feel safer.

A city of Dayton plan to change its rules on panhandling because of legal challenges has revived the debate about their effectiveness and sparked worries about begging becoming more disruptive for residents.

Dayton’s anti-panhandling rules enacted five years ago noticeably reduced begging in public and improved the perception of the city, according to some business and community leaders.

“We have found that downtown businesses appreciated the registration of those wishing to panhandle,” said Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We found it reasonably effective …”

But other groups said the regulations were often ignored by solicitors, and enforcement was inconsistent.

“I don’t think the changes will have an impact because I don’t think the changes ever really helped,” said Mike Martin, president of the Oregon District Business Association.

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On Wednesday night, the Dayton commission had the first reading of an ordinance that would amend, replace and repeal the city’s restrictions on panhandling.

In 2011, the city passed rules to crack down on begging and soliciting with the stated goal of improving the quality of life in the urban center. Dayton’s decision was part of a national trend.

The number of U.S. communities with citywide bans on begging in public increased by 25 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Dayton required solicitors to register with the police department and provide photo ID or be fingerprinted and photographed.

The city also forbid soliciting before sunrise and after dark, and it put some limits on asking for money or other things of value orally or through written or printed word.

Some community members said the restrictions cut down on unwanted solicitations across the city.

That’s partly because Dayton police were given the authority to arrest beggars who ask for money rather than just ticketing them.

Through the first five months of 2015, Dayton police made 81 arrests for people caught soliciting in unwanted locations or without a license.

In April 2015, however, the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the solicitation charges facing Clayton Peck, who has been arrested more than 200 times for panhandling.

Assistant Public Defender Angelina Jackson argued the city’s panhandling rules clearly violate the First Amendment because they are overly broad, criminalize legal conduct, are content-based restrictions on speech and impose invalid restraints on speech.

Prosecutors withdrew the charges before a judge ruled on the matter.

But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified how restrictions on content-based speech are unconstitutional. Since then, federal courts have ruled that anti-panhandling regulations in multiple communities violate free speech protections.

Dayton’s law department agrees that the city’s rules need revised and some provisions must be removed to comply with the First Amendment.

The proposed changes include eliminating the registration program and the restrictions on soliciting during certain times of day.

The rules Dayton passed in 2011 got rid of the panhandlers at Wayne Avenue and Keowee Street virtually overnight, said Karl Williamson, owner of Urban Krag in the Oregon Historic District.

Multiple Urban Krag customers had bad experiences with panhandlers who were overly aggressive or intimidating.

Some panhandlers truly need and deserve help and are caught in desperate situations, Williamson said, but others are looking for a quick buck so they can buy drugs or alcohol.

Williamson said he is concerned that lifting the restrictions on panhandling will result in more of the activity.

“What’s there to stop it?” he said.

The restrictions the city passed helped minimize some panhandling activities that had harmed the perception of the urban core, said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

Downtown is very safe, she said, but aggressive panhandling can be very intimidating and has been an obstacle to attracting people downtown to live, work and play.

The police department, Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley and other organizations have partnered together to try to connect people with mental illness, addiction and other issues with resources and services that can improve their lives, she said.

Gudorf said she is concerned that downtown could see higher levels of panhandling activities if the rules change.

“We’ll have to monitor it,” she said.

Panhandling tends to make visitors and residents feel uncomfortable and often results in people avoiding the parts of the city where they encountered beggars, said Martin, with the Oregon District Business Association.

But Martin said most of the panhandlers there are not registered, and enforcement of the current regulations did not significantly address the issue.

Jackson, the assistant public defender, said the city has other laws on the books it can use to protect citizens from harassment, intimidation, menacing and criminal trespassing.

But she said it was unconstitutional that people were being arrested and incarcerated for up to 30 days for holding signs or asking for money or cigarettes.

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