Amid protests outside, panhandling proposal passes with changes

About a dozen people stood outside Urbana’s city council chambers before the council’s meeting Monday, protesting a proposed ordinance against aggressive panhandling.

The anti-panhandling ordinance, which was presented to the council in a different form than at previous meetings, passed, although the council will not make a final decision until next week.

Unlike the ordinance presented to the council in previous weeks, the word “panhandling” was changed to “solicitation,” and the ordinance focused almost entirely on aggressive panhandling, which includes touching someone, blocking someone’s path or following someone while asking for money. The ordinance also prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM, inside a bank or on private property without the owner’s permission.

Notably, the ordinance does not ban panhandling from those in motor vehicles, during sundown or on the three-block-long area called the Philo Road business district, as the previous ordinance did.

The ordinance was written in response to several calls from people who felt intimidated by aggressive panhandlers.

The protest was organized by the local branch of the International Socialist Organization. As people filed into the building on their way to the meeting, the protesters chanted, “Racist and anti-poor, kick this ordinance out the door.”

Leighton Christiansen, one of the protest’s organizers, said now was not the time to penalize people for being poor, considering the recession and the frequent ineffectiveness of social programs designed to help the homeless. Christensen added that panhandlers are already victims.

“It gives police one more reason to pick on people who are already needy,” he said.

Danielle Chynoweth, former city council member, spoke at the meeting against the ordinance.

Chynoweth said every aspect of aggressive panhandling the ordinance bans is already covered by current city laws outlawing battery and harassment, among other things, and she questioned why panhandling had to be mentioned in the ordinance at all.

“The purpose of the ordinance has always been to act as a deterrent,” said city attorney Curt Borman. “This ordinance has never been about punishing people. It has never been about going after any segment of our community. It has never been designed to catch as many people as we possibly could.”

Borman also said there is no law currently on record to stop panhandlers from knocking on car windows or repeatedly asking for money. He said many of the behaviors described in the aggressive panhandling section of the ordinance are, when not taken to the extreme, not illegal. He added that courts would think a ban on all aggressive behavior would be too broad.

Eric Jakobsson, Ward 2, proposed an alternative solution during the meeting. Although he said the city currently lacks funds, he said he thinks the city’s approach to panhandlers should involve more than just police and should include coordination with social service agencies. Jakobsson said the reasons underlying panhandling include homelessness, mental health problems and substance abuse.

The council also discussed the budget for the Champaign County Convention & Visitors Bureau at Monday’s meeting. The mayor vetoed all money to the CVB on June 20, and the council upheld the veto July 18, with the caveat that the bureau would eventually receive some funding.

The council decided to postpone a decision on an ordinance giving $18,800 a year to the bureau, down from the approximately $72,000 previously allocated, until it finishes performance standards and contracts. Several council members said the amount of funding could change in future years.

Mayor Laurel Prussing questioned the allocation of even that much money and said she felt the money would be better spent on funding social services or mandatory raises.