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Legislating the Behavior of Beggars

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If what some city politicians are calling for becomes a reality, Los Angeles could someday have the nation’s toughest laws aimed at abusive panhandlers.

The proposal would make it illegal for panhandlers to touch, follow, swear at or threaten people who refuse to give them a handout. In some cases, beggars could be cited for sitting or leaning on public property or being too close to private property. Theoretically, the pleas for help at freeway ramps, street medians and ATMs would become a thing of the past.

Aside from constitutional and humanitarian protests against the proposal, critics point out that it’s just impractical. Police do not have the resources to enforce such a law, and charging the penniless fines of up to $500 is outrageous, they say.

But supporters maintain that the law would at least give police better leverage in clearing abusive beggars out of an area.

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Should Los Angeles create new, tough laws against abusive panhandling?

Philip “Flip” Smith, president of the Sepulveda Business Watch:

“I love it. That was my mission. . . . My big thing against having them at the offramps was that they were the first impression you would get of the community. It has a bigger impact than people realize. . . . If they want help, it’s available. . . . What I’m afraid of is it’s going to be difficult to enforce. . . . Having the law is one thing, but enforcing it is another.”

John Horn, chairman of the San Fernando Valley Homeless Coalition, who also works with the L.A. Family Housing Corps’ homeless service center in Pacoima:

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“I believe there are other ways you can help someone. A lot of the time in panhandling, people are giving money to someone and it’s not getting to the root cause of the problem. . . . I don’t think someone should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law just for asking someone for money. But there are better ways to help them . . . [such as] homeless help cards, which list names of agencies that people can go to.”

Carol Sobel, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California:

“Legally, as it’s been drawn up, I believe the law is unconstitutional because it targets speech and not conduct. . . . I can lean against a public building . . . but if I then ask for money, I am breaking the law. The minute you write a law that makes some things illegal that are otherwise legal simply because of what you are saying, I think you have a problem. . . . The practical reality is that people out there asking people for money in order to exist aren’t going to be able to pay the fines. . . . We ought to be putting our resources into helping these people.”

Joel Roberts, executive director of People Assisting the Homeless:

“Our philosophy is giving people a hand up, not a handout. We are in support of the law. We feel that giving out handouts keeps the homeless on the streets. . . . We don’t encourage handing out money, but on the other hand we would encourage our communities to help these people find jobs and homes. . . . I think it’s not mean-spirited if the city would also balance out that ordinance with programs that would empower the homeless to get off the streets.”


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