Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Panhandling is protected by the First Amendment, aggression is not

Like any metropolis, Wilmington has its share of panhandlers, while sometimes uncomfortable, it's not illegal (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
Like any metropolis, Wilmington has its share of panhandlers, while sometimes uncomfortable, it’s not illegal (Port City Daily FILE PHOTO)

WILMINGTON — Panhandling in Wilmington has been an issue for years. From overpopulation in local jails, to protecting the First Amendment, Wilmington Police have had to tread a fine line when dealing with panhandlers.

Panhandling, or the begging for or asking for money, can not only be off-putting for visitors, but according to Wilmington Police Department, it can be an issue of public safety. While panhandling in a passive manner is not illegal, there are actions the police can take to try and curb panhandling.

“We are not backing off panhandling, panhandling can become an issue of public safety,” Police Spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron said. “Often people who are soliciting money will stand in the streets, disrupt traffic and block views creating a dangerous scenario for drivers, which is why we will charge offenders using a city code that will keep the streets safe and people off medians.  Code Sec. 5-31 will promote public safety to protect both pedestrians and motorists in and around the roadways.”

The city also has an ordinance that allows police to take action against hostile or aggressive panhandlers, she said.

“We will also charge offenders for aggressive panhandling under sec. 6-16 … Aggressive actions include making non-consensual physical contact, following someone even after being told no, blocking a person’s movement and using abusive language,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits in the past against cities who enact anti-panhandling laws, claiming such laws are violations of the First Amendment.

According to Dandron, “Signs asking for money are clearly free speech, and WPD will not take signs from anyone even if they are committing the above offenses.”

Effects of panhandling

Aside from the legality of panhandling, the effects of an abundance of panhandlers can be felt by local businesses.

President of Wilmington Downtown Inc. Ed Wolverton said the issue of panhandling is one that has been brought up by local business owners in the past, and something that WDI is currently working on addressing.

Panhandling is something that occurs everywhere, not just in a downtown situation, Wolverton said, but when it occurs in the suburbs it is often an individual holding a sign as cars drive past. The added barrier of a vehicle, instead of having the direct person-to-person contact that can occur in a downtown setting, makes this type of suburban panhandling easier to deal with.

Wolverton was also clear on the fact that panhandling is not illegal, and it is a matter of the First Amendment, but when it turns aggressive it can become illegal. There is also a difference between homelessness and panhandling Wolverton wanted to clarify.

“Not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all homeless are panhandlers … There are people who have cars and homes that panhandle, it’s their job,” he said.

One of the ways WDI is addressing panhandling in downtown is through its ambassador program, which was introduced last year. Ambassadors have engaged with panhandlers in downtown, and while they have a hands-off approach they will inform them of city ordinances and assist in other ways, Wolverton said.

Joe Apkarian is the owner of Pour House, a bar in Wilmington and he has seen the effects of panhandling in downtown.

“My bar is on the corner of Market and Front, it’s on the corner with I think the last benches downtown. Those benches are one of the main problems, no family sits on them, no kids eat their ice cream from Kilwins with their grandparents. I see the panhandlers and others that use those benches daily and hassle just about everyone that walks by. They get the tourists, the families, the people we want downtown are the ones these folks target the most,” Apkarian said.

The subject of panhandling can often lead to mixed emotions from the community. Apkarian says that while he is sympathetic to those in need, there is a difference between those who those who are actually in need of a helping hand, and those who just want money.

“I know people get super defensive about this stuff and I understand the desire to help your fellow man, me too, I and by extension my staff are extremely proud of the non-profit organizations we support here in the community. We are not here to kick or complain about someone that is down and asking for some help, but that is not who we are talking about,” Apkarian said.

He said he has offered food or drinks to some of the people asking for money, just to be told they only wanted money.

“If you need help, I’m there, but if you just want to ask for some money … you need to not be downtown,” he said.

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