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Denver Council approves panhandling proposal

Published December 6, 2005 at midnight

The Denver City Council approved a three-pronged offensive against panhandling Monday night as it sought to blend a greater police role and tough love in the mayor's 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The near-unanimous vote came after nearly three hours of heated debate.

Critics accused the city of seeking to shove society's most poor and troubled citizens from sight. Supporters said it was part of Mayor John Hickenlooper's comprehensive plan to provide housing and treatment to the mentally ill and addicted, while demanding personal accountability from those who refuse help.

The council passed three ordinances restricting panhandling practices from the heart of downtown, from roadways and around sidewalk cafes citywide. They become effective at the end of this week.

The first ordinance outlawed sitting or lying in the public right-of-way in the downtown area from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The law doesn't specifically prohibit panhandling and people can still beg standing up or sitting on a bench if they don't obstruct passersby. Other exceptions to the new law include medical emergencies, parades, festivals and at transit stops not along the 16th Street Mall. Disabled people who use a wheelchair, walker or similar device also would be exempt.

The second ordinance amends Denver's "aggressive panhandling" ordinance to bar solicitors from entering any kind of traffic lane citywide.

The third ordinance would outlaw panhandling citywide within 20 feet of sidewalk eateries. The bill amends the existing aggressive panhandling law that restricts panhandling at other locations, including near banks and automated teller machines.

The council voted 12-1 on the first two bills, with Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie the lone dissenter. She voted with others to make the ban on begging near outdoor eateries unanimous.

"I agree with many of you that begging and panhandling . . . makes us uncomfortable," MacKenzie said. "But I don't think we should criminalize discomfort. I don't think we should . . . shove our social problems that make us feel like social failures out of sight."

But other City Council members said the new laws balance the need to protect public safety and quality of life with outreach to encourage panhandlers, whether they're homeless or not, to accept social services.

The sit-lie ordinance first requires police to ask the alleged violator to move or face a citation or time in jail. If police determine the person needs medical attention or human services, such as alcohol rehabilitation, the officer or an outreach worker will steer the person to the appropriate provider.

Councilwoman Carol Boigon said the city was seeking to "change the incentive structure to drive people toward protective services, a warm place to sleep, treatment for their mental illness . . . and treatment for addiction."

Boigon told of visiting a Denver middle school where parents said "homeless people are threatening their little girls and boys," shaking them down for their lunch money as the children walked to school.

"We don't have to accept the lawless environment . . . that comes with being poor or struggling," she said. "To let addiction and mental illness dominate our decision-making about what is good for Denver is to succumb to this lawless environment."

But MacKenzie countered: "I don't believe the threat of citation is the only way to deliver services to people who are in need of them."

Denver resident Kirstin Mathes called the laws repulsive, racist and discriminatory against the poor.

"You have an obligation to represent and defend every single citizen of Denver, especially the ones who don't have a place to call home," she said.

Resident Yaakov Watkins agreed, calling the police-enforced push for social services coercive. "If I have to coerce somebody to take help, maybe it's not help."

The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Cathryn Hazouri blasted the laws, saying they target the poor and invite discrimination.

"Police officers . . . are more likely to ask a disheveled person to move on than a well-dressed one who may be doing the exact same thing as the disheveled person," she said.

Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell, who drafted the three ordinances, said they target behavior, not people. He's noted that similar laws adopted in other cities have been deemed constitutional.

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