Urbana City Council hears opposition to panhandling ordinance

For the past several weeks, the Urbana City Council has acted on and discussed issues with hotel and motel owners. In sharp contrast to those meetings, it addressed concerns of opponents of a proposed panhandling ordinance, including some homeless people, at its Monday meeting.

The panhandling ordinance — which the city council has postponed voting on until July 25 — brought dozens of Urbana residents to the meeting. The proposed ordinance, which several people saw as a worse version of a similar anti-panhandling ordinance proposed 16 years ago, bans panhandling in the three-block area known as the Philo Road Business District. It also bans panhandling on private property and disallows panhandling if the solicited person is at a bus stop, inside a motor vehicle, 20 feet from an ATM or bank or during sundown.

The ordinance also bans aggressive panhandling, which consists of, among other things, touching someone, blocking someone’s path and continuing to panhandle from someone after they have refused to give money.

Violators would be subject to a $165 fine.City attorney Curt Borman said no one would be arrested or jailed over panhandling. He also said it would be one of the lowest fines in the city code.

Many who spoke at the meeting questioned the constitutionality of the ordinance, pointing out that the Supreme Court has upheld panhandling as being protected by the First Amendment. Borman said the ordinance was constitutional and that several cities had already passed similar ordinances.

“This is not the time to be a leader and try to press the issue,” he said. “This is a very, very mainstream ordinance.”

Another major critique of the ordinance was the fine the panhandlers would be required to pay. Many of those speaking during public input suggested that those panhandling on the street would most likely not be able to pay the $165 fine.

At least one city council member agreed.

“If someone’s panhandling for a dollar, they sure as heck don’t have $165,” said Heather Stevenson, Ward 6. “I think the fine is a way of trying to make money, and I think it’s the wrong way to try to make money for the city.”

There was concern about what would happen if someone could not pay the fine. Borman said those unable to pay fines have the option of working off the fine with unpaid community service. Stevenson responded that someone who was panhandling probably would not have time to complete community service.

Police Chief Patrick Connolly said Urbana police have received 83 calls over panhandling in the past two years, although panhandling is not currently restricted at all in Urbana. He said the calls were all from people who felt they had no choice but to give the panhandlers money.

However, not everyone in the audience opposed the ordinance.

Theresa Michelson, coordinator of the Southeast Urbana Neighborhood Association, said panhandling is a major problem on Philo Road, which is experiencing a crime wave. She said she was not sure people who had spoken against the ordinance had even read it or truly understood the problem.

“If you shop at Schnuck’s, if you do University business, you don’t even go to Philo Road,” she said. “You don’t even know what’s going on over there.”