Buddy, can you spare a dime?
By David H. Landon
In Dayton, like cities everywhere, the number of panhandlers seems to be on a steady rise. At the top of many exit ramps across the Miami Valley, panhandlers have set up shop holding signs with personalized messages about their suffering and waiting for the traffic light to turn red. As the two lanes of traffic exiting the interstate wait for the light to change back to green, the panhandler tries to make eye contact with a kind-hearted driver. “Hungry … Homeless … Out of Work … Family of 5 …God Bless You”— this sums up the message of the typical sign. Inevitably, one of the drivers in the line gives a nod to the panhandler and rolls down the car window. It’s the signal that the panhandler has been waiting for to approach the vehicle to pick up the money. The panhandler now begins his dance through the cars in line to reach the “good Samaritan.” If the light changes before he can return to the curb, the other drivers are now involved in the transaction as they try to avoid hitting the panhandler before he returns to his safe spot on the curb.
Last week the City of Dayton amended its ordinance which deals with panhandling. The existing ordinance requires anyone soliciting money by verbal solicitation to have a permit issued by the city. The ordinance didn’t directly address the silent solicitors who stand with signs and only approach a contributor once the action is initiated by that contributor. The revised proposal introduced last Wednesday would require the same permit to hold any sign asking for money, and would restrict the times, places and manner for holding such signs. The ordinance also restricts panhandling to daylight hours and prohibits panhandling around ATMs or in a road right-of-way.
These are difficult times economically and there are thousands of people out of work and in desperate need of financial assistance. Most of us have an instinct for compassion that causes us to want to help these people who are holding the signs on the side of the road. As I see these people, I imagine how difficult it must be to swallow one’s pride and hold up a sign for the entire world to see your desperation. How can we support legislation that makes it harder for these people to survive? Unfortunately, such laws are needed to protect both the panhandler and the public, and because individual panhandling undermines our existing safety net.
Do these laws controlling the time and place where solicitations can occur violate free speech? It certainly affects the speech of these solicitors. The question is whether there exists a legitimate government purpose for the restrictions to the “speech” of the panhandlers. For anyone who has watched a panhandler dance through traffic to reach a donation, the purpose is evident. There is a government purpose to keep the streets safe. Pedestrians in traffic at the end of an exit ramp from the interstate are a bad idea.
Someone is going to get hit by a car, and then come the lawyers … no one wants that. The City of Dayton has a valid purpose which allows it to regulate the speech of the panhandler. The panhandler can still hold his or her sign, just not in a high-traffic area.
This is somewhat counter-intuitive for me. I am usually the one who rails against government intervention. Here we have individuals who are trying to survive and the government is getting in the way. The bigger picture is important here. The practice by these panhandlers to walk through traffic to reach a particular car is dangerous. The action by Dayton is consistent with protecting the panhandler and the unfortunate driver who might hit the panhandler.
Then there is the issue of whether the panhandler is a person who has honestly fallen on hard times or whether their whole story is a scam. Almost every day I take the Colonel Glenn exit off I-675, and everyday at the top of the exit ramp stands the same man with a sign. The sign reads: Veteran … Homeless …Need Work … God Bless. He’s been there every day since spring. The first day I saw him I gave him a dollar.
One day as I arrived at the light I saw that he was just leaving and watched as he darted across a busy Col. Glenn Hwy. I watched him walk about 100 feet and approach a pick-up truck parked at a nearby lot. He climbed into the truck and drove away. The truck was a late model, extended-cab pick-up, that even at two or three years old, easily retails for $15,000 or more. How did this “veteran” drive such an expensive truck? I began to question whether or not he was really down on his luck, or was he running a scam.
Now this location is outside the Dayton city limits and won’t be affected by the new Dayton ordinance. And there might be a legitimate explanation for the expensive pick-up truck. Maybe when he lost his home and job, this was the last asset that he was able to hang onto. But this is an example where registration of a panhandler could be a good idea. If there were a screening process for such individuals, we could hope to weed out the scam artists.
David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com