Among Council's most contentious issues this week was a pedestrian safety bill, also known as the panhandling ordinance.
By way of background, over the past several years there has been a perceived increase in folks asking for money, food, and any other number of things at street corners. For those of us from the inner city, this isn't new. But surprising many recently is that this activity has been seen all over the Kansas City metro. To combat this and a fear that these folks might be at increased danger of being hit by cars at intersections (although no statistics bear out this new concern) half of the Council introduced an ordinance making it a crime for folks to do any number of things:
(1) Failing to use a sidewalk (regardless of its condition) when there is one;
(2) Failing to walk as far to the edge of the road as "practicable" [according to whom?] where is no sidewalk;
(3) Remaining in an intersection "longer than necessary" [according to whom?] to safely traverse;
(4) Stopping, standing, or remaining within 300 feet (yikes!) of any entrance or exit ramp of a highway or remaining under a bridge for things like sleep or warmth from harsh winds on cold days or shade on hot ones.
The pro argument is that this law would only give police a new tool to assist the often-homeless population that now would be subject to criminal penalties for any of the offenses if failing to move along. Sure. But, what it also does is criminalizes--unconstitutionally--a broad swath of legal activity. The candidate waving "Vote for Me" signs would be prohibited from legally protected activity in many parts of the city; the brothers selling newspapers near intersections or perhaps a block away from a highway would now be prohibited from doing so; the person just sitting doing nothing or standing minding their own business will be asked to move along and could be subject to ticketing or arrest when failing to do so. The people who live outside could be subject to arrest for sleeping under bridges.
It's hard to see how criminalizing that broad swath of activity is relevant to pedestrian safety when we could really just pass an ordinance about people in intersections. Vagrancy laws like these are often vague and overbroad and have a fraught history in our country. Unfortunately, the ordinance before us has many of the same problems.
Surprising some, being poor is a constitutionally protected activity and you can't be incarcerated for it. If we want to help people, let's do it, but creating more crimes, particularly with no rational relation to the safety of pedestrians, is not the way.
Like most, I don't want to see a proliferation of homeless camps throughout the city or folks panhandling everywhere, but compelling them to move by force of law will create more consequences--like further incarceration--than we want or can afford.
[originally posted October 26, 2018]
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After a long discussion, the Kansas City Council on Thursday decided to send a contentious public safety ordinance that would essentially limit panhandling back to committee.