Curbing change collectors

Tom Jones can tell you whether that hat you?re wearing to the frat party tonight is the latest style. No, he?s not the fashion editor of the Post-Gazette ? he?s the panhandler stationed across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.

Jones wishes he didn?t have to be there. Soon, the Pittsburgh City Council may make that dream a reality ? though perhaps not in the way Jones would like.

The Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing on September 20 regarding Bill 1617, a bill that would severely restrict all city panhandlers and solicitors. Their meeting was the second step in clearing the bill. City Council first ordered local associations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the district attorney?s office, and the Pittsburgh police force to compromise over the bill before opening it to the public.

The bill would place limitations on locations where panhandlers can solicit pocket change. It would prohibit panhandlers from operating outside the hours of 6 am to 8 pm (9 am to 7 pm for Daylight Savings Time). The bill would also restrict solicitation within 25 feet of an outdoor caf? and 10 feet from any ATM machine.

Local business leaders were on hand to show support for the bill, voicing their worries that visitors are leaving Pittsburgh with bad impressions and vowing never to return.

Bruce Kraus, president of the Southside Chamber of Commerce, backed the bill, saying that panhandling is ?threatening the security and privacy? of all citizens on city streets. According to Kraus, the panhandlers have targeted the more vulnerable, such as senior citizens and unsuspecting college students. The rate of panhandling has risen fourfold since the beginning of the fall semester at local universities, especially in the Oakland area. A number of panhandlers are located on Forbes Avenue near the University of Pittsburgh and on Craig Street. If the 25-foot rule was enforced, they would not be able to remain in these areas, which have a high concentration of restaurants with outdoor seating.
Barb Feige, associate director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, has campaigned to make the panhandling bill less harsh on the city?s solicitors. She deemed the time restriction ?unconstitutional,? explaining, ?There is no Cinderella clause in the First Amendment.?

The ACLU successfully modified the bill to allow panhandling within 25 feet of an outdoor caf?, down from the original 50 feet.

Feige cited the negative effects the bill has on other solicitors, such as the traditional Salvation Army bucketeers. Staring pointedly at the council, Feige challenged, ?You?re allowed to ask for a vote; folks should be allowed to ask for money.?

The meeting agenda did not only include the opinions of Pittsburgh business representatives, but incorporated other voices as well. Nick Horazzi, a Pittsburgh citizen, spoke passionately on the positive repercussions the bill would have on his everyday life.

Saying that he is tired of ?sweeping excrement and vomit out of alleyways,? Horazzi believes the bill will help combat the fact that ?the government has made it easy to be irresponsible.?

Other community speakers shared stories of fraudulent panhandlers, such as a woman on Grant Street who was ?stricken? with a fatal brain tumor that was supposed to have killed her three years ago.
Until the final decision is made, Tom Jones plans to keep his spot on the corner of Wood and Oliver Streets. Jones is worried ?a few bad apples will mess it up for everyone else,? speaking of the aggressive panhandlers who roam the streets and assault pedestrians when ignored.

On a good day, Jones makes about $20, enough to buy ?a couple of sandwiches at McDonald?s.? He is not sure what he is going to do if the city asks him to leave, but has decided to worry about that when it happens.

Right now, he is more concerned for the charitable organizations that will be hurt by the bill?s passage.
?Don?t pick on panhandlers,? he says, ?because it will hurt everybody, including other organizations that solicit.?

A final decision is expected from City Council within two weeks.