We have little doubt that city officials can find legal wiggle room for a few “no-panhandling” zones. That doesn’t mean they should.
The appeal for forceful elimination of begging came from meetings of the Downtown Solutions Team, a citizens group formed by Mayor Steve Bach to create a downtown “renaissance.” Merchants complain that beggars discourage shoppers from doing business in the area. They probably do, but they’re a distant second to parking hassles.
As told by Gazette reporter Barbara Cotter, Police Chief Pete Carey has been meeting about a proposed ordinance with the city’s chief of economic vitality, Steve Cox, and Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak — an umbrella for charities that deal with the homeless.
The Colorado Springs Police Department has conducted a study of “best practices” in other cities. The research led to an understanding that no-begging zones withstand legal scrutiny better than citywide bans.
We understand and respect Mayor Bach’s commitment to helping small businesses succeed in Colorado Springs, and city government should do whatever is reasonable to make downtown appear more safe and attractive for shoppers. That’s why we had no objection to placement of surveillance cameras, which will watch and record people going about their business in public. When in public, we cannot expect privacy. If a camera records a mugging, murder or assault, police will have a much better chance of solving the crime. The mere presence of cameras should deter crime and help downtown merchants.
Unlike surveillance, laws that curtail begging are not reasonable. One can argue that our country’s most sacred value is the right of individuals to communicate with one another, even if the listener dislikes the message. That’s why we have a First Amendment. It’s not to protect those forms of communication that we all embrace. It’s to protect the peace protester, the religious fanatic and the business with obnoxious, in-your-face ads. When a beggar approaches other individuals and asks for cash, it is often a request the listeners would rather not hear. The beggar puts his audience in a place of discomfort. Yet “give me a dollar” is nothing other than protected speech. To banish it from a few select public spaces is to suspend the First Amendment in those locations.
“As someone said at a meeting the other night, ‘Don’t feed the bears,’” said Holmes, who advocates a wide assortment of regulations of the poor.
People who beg are not animals. They are human beings with the presumptive right to all protections afforded by the Constitution. They have as much right to seek donations as does Holmes, who sustains his organization and his six-figure salary by asking for money.
We should not outlaw reasonable activities, such as asking for donations, simply because they bother us. A consumer who avoids downtown, to dodge requests for help, should contemplate a change of heart to enjoy one of the best parts of our city. Learn to love beggars, and to respect their rights, even if choosing to decline all of their requests for aid. Most are just people with problems, trying to get through another day.
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