Editorial: Begging for a real solution

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On Friday, Nov. 20, Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. announced that the city will not continue to appeal a court opinion that struck down the city’s controversial ordinances against aggressive panhandling.

The move brings an end to the case of Thayer v. City of Worcester, a case that made its way to the Supreme Court.

The city, under former City Manager Michael V. O’Brien, enacted two panhandling ordinances in early 2013, one that restricted soliciting for donations near public ways and after dark, and one that addressed aggressive forms of asking for money such as following or haranguing people.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a free-speech lawsuit on behalf of two panhandlers and School Committee member Tracy Novick, who had held campaign signs at street corners.

Eventually, the Supreme Court sent the case back for reconsideration, in light of a ruling in a similar matter in another state that found it improper to take into account the content of the free speech.

This month, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman ruled Worcester’s panhandling laws violated First Amendment rights.

In announcing the city will not pursue another appeal, Augustus said in a statement: “We remain concerned about the public safety issues surrounding aggressive panhandling, particularly in median strips and other potentially dangerous places. This concern is not theoretical; earlier this year, a Worcester resident died after he was struck in the median. However, it has become clear that the ordinance is unlikely to be successfully defended in court.

“So, after weighing the pros and cons, and after consultation with the Worcester City Council, we have decided not to move forward with an appeal of Judge Hillman’s ruling. We will continue to use existing ordinances to protect our residents, including those who engage in panhandling.”

To frame the ordinances solely in terms of public safety strains credulity.

It was clear that in crafting the laws in 2012 the City Council, was aiming to stop panhandling in traffic in reaction, at least in part, to complaints from citizens about the pervasive, sometimes aggressive, and possibly organized, nature of panhandlers’ actions.

GoLocalWorcester.com reported in June 2012 that in speaking in favor of an ordinance, City Councilor Rick Rushton said: “This city has so many panhandlers. It’s clear when a women on the corner of Park and Salisbury Street is driving away in her car and they’re getting dropped off in vans. There’s something wrong here.”

Other councilors also spoke in terms that made clear the problem was as much a quality of life issue for residents as public safety.

We believe the case was properly adjudicated and the city’s decision not to appeal the decision was prudent.

Aggressive panhandling was, and remains, a problem. Without attempting to account for the motivations of any particular person or group, excessive panhandling impacts citizens to some degree as they come and go about the city — whether they give from their pockets or not. It looks bad and feels bad, and speaks to a larger societal problem of  inadequate services and lack of opportunity.

Viewed from this perspective, Worcester’s laws, if they had been allowed to stand, might at best have managed the symptoms, but not the illness.

The end of this court battle should be a reminder that there is no such thing as a quick fix to a complex problem. We as a community need to work harder to reduce public begging not by banning it but by making it unnecessary. If this can be achieved, a loss in court turns into a win for the city.

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