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Warren looks at possible panhandler legislation

WARREN — Complaints about panhandlers approaching drivers as they wait at traffic lights have council members looking at writing legislation to prevent this from happening in the city.

Pierson “Butch” Butcher, a community volunteer and regular speaker at council meetings, last week expressed concern about what appears to be an increase in the number of panhandlers in various areas around the city.

“If we are going to attract more jobs to the city we have to get them off the streets,” Butcher said. “We don’t want to have the image having people begging for money in different areas of the city.

“I’ve seen panhandlers being picked up by police in other communities, so I know there are ways to get them off the streets.”

Last Monday, Melvin V. White, 58, 695 Bane St., Warren, was cited by Warren police outside of Sheetz, 3379 Elm Road, for soliciting customers by standing next to the air pump with a sign in his hand, asking for money.

The sign said: “Homeless. Please Help me. God bless you.”

White is known by Sheetz employees as a habitual panhandler, according to a police report.

Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold, D-6th Ward, is planning to call for a legislative committee meeting later this fall where council members, social service agencies, law enforcement, and the general public will have opportunities to express their concerns about panhandling in Warren.

While the councilwoman admits she personally has not seen panhandling occurring in her west side ward, Saffold has witnessed it happening in other areas of the city.

“I have some concerns about the safety of the people being approached from a public safety standpoint and because we are in a period in which we have to be concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19 during the interactions.”

ELSEWHERE

A number of Ohio cities, including Youngstown, Cleveland and Akron, in the early 2000s approved legislation outlawing panhandling, but were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“A city cannot take a resident’s ability to use their First Amendment right of speech in asking for money,” Joseph Mead, an attorney working on behalf of the ACLU, said. “Citizens have the constitutional right for them to ask for help.”

Youngstown stopped enforcing its 2009 panhandling legislation in 2015, eventually repealing the law in 2016.

Youngstown Councilman Michael Ray, D-4th Ward, emphasized city officials initially approved the law because there was a concern about increasingly aggressive panhandlers. A few years later, the city stopped enforcing the legislation, because of ACLU’s objections.

“I don’t know how effective the legislation was, but it was a tool we were able to use,” Ray said.

ACLU sued the cities of Cleveland and Akron to stop enforcement of their legislation. Neither went to trial because the cities repealed their legislation.

Mead is not aware of any Ohio community enforcing a panhandling ordinance.

“I would advise Warren leaders looking at writing these laws to look at ways that do not impede on people’s First Amendment rights,” he said. “If there are concerns, then, in most instances, there are other laws that are being broken, such as assault.”

UNDERLYING CAUSES

Warren Councilman Ronald White, D-7th Ward, said some panhandlers told him they make up to $600 per week by standing on corners begging.

Councilman Mark Forte, D-4th Ward, said any discussion must look at some of the root causes that placed people in the position to have to beg for money and food.

“It is not only a law enforcement issue,” Forte said. “We have to look at the underlying causes that are pushing people to the street.”

Forte said he was told by police Chief Eric Merkel that the department has been increasing the number of citations.

Councilman John Brown, D-at Large, said he personally knows at least one man who is a panhandler.

“I know he has had a drug problem,” Brown said. “The best thing a person with compassion can do is not give the panhandler money that can be used to buy drugs. If you want to help, then give money to Warren Family Mission or some other charity that can help them.”

“I know it can be hard, but the best thing that can be done is not to become an enabler with possible drug problems,” Brown said.

Councilman Greg Greathouse, D-3rd Ward, said if people stop giving them money, panhandlers will go away.

“I’ve been seeing more out this year than I’ve seen before,” Greathouse said.

Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at Large, is not surprised there has been an uptick in the number of people begging for food and money.

“We have people who lost their jobs and all means of supporting themselves and their families due to the pandemic,” Rucker said.

She told council members about a woman who has been traveling door to door asking for money.

“People have to be careful about opening doors, especially at night,” Rucker said. “It could be a person with other issues beyond a lack of money. It could be a person with mental illness issues that should be addressed.”

Law Director Enzo Cantalamessa said his office, if requested, will begin doing the research needed to write legislation for an ordinance.

“You can give tickets, but at what point are you chasing your tail,” Cantalamessa said. “Those given citations often don’t have home addresses, money to pay fines and may not show up for court hearings.”

rsmith@tribtoday.com

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