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Portland City Council to Vote on Legality of Panhandling in the Median
07/15/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight
A Panhandler Named Dave

Do people have the right to stand in medians to panhandle, or is it a public safety hazard? That's the issue the Portland City Council will take up tonight, when it votes on a proposed ordinance to ban any activity in medians. Just a year ago the council voted down a similar proposal, but Portland Police said there's been a surge in panhandlers perched in the middle of busy streets, and that the city needs to be proactive to prevent a tragedy.

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There are many in Portland who aren't thrilled about the amount of panhandling in median strips, including 41 year old Dave. Dave won't give his last name. He's a panhandler.

"This is Plan B. This is not plan A, this is plan B," Dave said. "I go to the temp agency at 4:30 and I sit there for a couple of hours, and if they have work, I don't come out and do this, but if they don't, then I come out and do this."

Ever since Dave lost his apartment in Auburn a couple years ago, he's been chasing work wherever he hears he can find it. First it was New Hampshire. Then Bangor. Now Portland. Dave's a machine operator, and he said since he arrived in the city a little over a month ago, he hasn't found any work, not even temp jobs. So instead he works this grassy median strip on the corner of Franklin Arterial and Marginal Way to make money. By 9:00 am, it's already searingly hot.

"So far I've made three dollars," he said. "I've been out here for a couple of hours, and I've made three dollars, so. It's slow. I'll probably be out here for a little while, but not for too long, because I'm getting kind of red."

Dave tries to get at least ten to $15 so he can buy necessities like soap, food, and a beer. He said that's his ticket into the homeless shelter he lives in, which takes in substance abusers. Dave walks down the line of cars, holding a sign made from a pizza box that said, "Homeless Please Help." He'll repeat this same routine at least a couple more times today. And Dave has a lot of company...which makes the city's police chief take notice.

"People can be driving through the city and go, what has happened?" said Chief Mike Sauschuck. "There's just so much more of this activity, specifically on median strips."

Sitting in Portland Police headquarters, Sauschuck motions to a stack of paperwork, the records of citizen calls concerned about their own safety and that of panhandlers on medians. Sauschuck said from January through May, panhandling has increased over 100 percent compared to the same period a year ago, and he wants the practice banned from median strips.

"If you're standing on a sidewalk somewhere downtown, holding a sign and minding your own business, that's absolutely protected by the first Amendment," Sauschuck said. "If you're standing on an eight inch piece of concrete in the middle of rush hour traffic on some of our busier streets, that's problematic. And to me, I look at that as an immediate public safety concern."

The ban would actually prohibit any activity on medians, including businesses or political campaigns from waving signs. Chief Sauschuck believes he's on solid legal footing if the ban passes, but Zachary Heiden from the ACLU of Maine disagrees.

"The ACLU of Maine is very much opposed to the proposed ordinance, and if the City Council goes forward with it, we're going to very seriously consider litigation," Heiden warned.

Heiden said the First Amendment protects certain spaces for public use, including parks, squares, sidewalks and medians. But nationwide, there has been an uptick in cities that have prohibited panhandling in certain public spaces. Jeremy Rosen is Policy Director at The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

"What we've seen in many cases is that these types of ordinances have been portrayed as simply responding to safety issues, when in fact they were really motivated by a desire to remove homeless people from a particular location," Rosen said.

Rosen said the law center has successfully challenged ordinances that criminalize homeless behavior, but it all depends on the language of the ordinance.

Back on the median of this busy portland intersection, Dave said he doesn't know where he'll go if the Portland ordinance passes.

"There's aggressive panhandling, and then there's what I'm doing," Dave said. "If you're not running up to cars, and if you're not knocking on windows, and if you're not being aggressive, I think they should just leave you alone."

After a half hour without getting any money, Dave crosses the street to a different intersection to try his luck there.

Photo by Patty Wight.

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