Panhandler Licensing Fails to Move Ahead Due to Resistance by Councilors
Efforts to regulate New Bedford's panhandlers through licensing met its match during Thursday evening's City Council meeting thanks to major concerns over costly lawsuits against the city.
Councilor at Large Ian Abreu proposed an ordinance modeled after a similar one in Akron, OH that would require all panhandlers to file for a license through the city. After 40 minutes of robust discussion, it was decided to take no further action on the proposal though the freshman councilor doesn't plan on giving up just yet.
"Myself and my colleagues have all recognized that there is an epidemic in our community," Abreu said after the meeting. "We want to help those who want help and who need help and we also want to protect the safety and well-being of our residents."
Abreu's motion was supported by Councilor at Large Brain Gomes, who said this proposal may be ruffling some people's feathers, but it's better than idly standing by.
"You can criticize, but we're trying, we're trying," Gomes said. "What more do you want?"
He went on to describe the phone calls he gets from constituents across the city about the aggressive panhandlers on a number of intersections and the fears they invoke on drivers.
Gomes and Abreu didn't seem too phased about threats by the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the city if such an ordinance was passed, but other councilors saw it as the only response to moving the proposal along.
"We're not going to beat this, we're going to get sued," conceded Ward 5 Councilor Kerry Winterson, a co-sponsor of the motion.
The council's legal counsel, David Gerwatowski, warned an ordinance styled such as this would almost always lose in court, especially in Massachusetts where similar laws have already been struck down on the basis First Amendment violations to speech.
"It's significantly difficult with a law that is restricting a certain type of speech," said Gerwatowski.
He suggested the city refrain from focusing on any specific content, and rather on public safety matters such as keeping people off of medians and out of roadways. These subjects would still need to be backed up with extensive data to avoid potential lawsuits.
The proposed license would only be available after supplying official identification, completing a background check and filing yearly state and federal tax returns.
Ward 4 Councilor Dana Rebeiro suggested to divert more energy and attention at the causes of people begging for money on the street, including homelessness and drug addiction.
"Drug addiction is a very strong thing," Rebeiro said. "Some people don't mind breaking into a house or robbing an old lady, and some people would rather hold up a sign."
Abreu noted that "homelessness and panhandling are two completely separate issues" but both need public and private partnership to be addressed.
Other councilors simply suggest the public refrain from giving money to panhandlers, and instead donate to charitable services dedicated to helping those in need.