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Panhandling (copy)

Jeff Holmes holds a sign as he panhandles at Eldorado and North Main streets last month. 

We can take the side of the American Civil Liberties Union on one aspect of Decatur’s panhandling ordinance.

The national organization made a national effort this week. Coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, advocates across the country demanded almost 240 cities in more than 12 states repeal what they consider outdated panhandling ordinances.

The ACLU and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless delivered letters demanding repeal of the ordinances Tuesday to officials in Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Chicago, Cicero, Danville, Decatur, East St. Louis, Elgin, Joliet, Moline, Oak Park, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana.

National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty senior attorney Eric Tars said until basic needs such as food, health care and housing are met, homeless people have the right to ask for help.

The Decatur ordinance bans solicitation on public buses, within 15 feet of a bank or ATM or on private property. It also bans soliciting money in public "in an aggressive manner," which could include touching, asking after being denied, or trying to stop someone's walking or driving path.

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All of which sounds reasonable. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled panhandling is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, and the case has been successfully used to challenge panhandling ordinances across the country. Lawyers argued that cities couldn't stop people from asking for money on a street corner while allowing others to talk about something else on that corner.

It’s not a bad thing to have a review, which interim Decatur City Manager Billy Tyus said will be done by city staff, and when that's completed, they'll report to the city council.

In particular, the use of the word “aggressive” in the ordinance is fuzzy, and unless the panhandler is clearly interfering with a person’s progress, “aggressive” is difficult to define. What’s aggressive and invasive to one person is another person’s friendliness.

The review is serious business. In a battle over its anti-panhandling laws, the city of Springfield was ordered by federal court to pay more than $330,000 to civil rights attorneys who represented two panhandlers.

Several Decatur nonprofit organizations and the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce last year launched a campaign against panhandling. Law enforcement officials and social workers say in no uncertain terms that the best way to help panhandlers is to do almost anything but give money. Christine Gregory, executive director of Dove Inc., a Decatur-based coalition of religious social service organizations and volunteers, calls the panhandlers' coercion “manipulative entrepreneurship.”

The issue is one most citizens do not want to try to confront. Avoiding the topic is easier, as is leaving a vague ordinance on the books.

Refining the law is the way to make sure it says what we want it to stay while remaining within the parameters reached by the courts.

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