Boston's New Panhandling Plan Under Fire

(NECN: Josh Brogadir) - Boston is joining Worcester in trying to regulate where people can beg for money after hundreds of complaints about aggressive panhandling in roadways.

When you get off the Pike to get on Storrow Drive or cross the river to Cambridge, chances are you'll be stuck in traffic. Chances are also good that you'll also see some guys asking for money.

One man didn't want to talk on camera, but says the new Boston City Council proposal to crack down on aggressive panhandling in the roadways with fines doesn't apply to him because he doesn't stand right in the middle of the street.

The intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue has generated hundreds of complaints to the city from drivers about panhandling.

People are walking through traffic with a cup in hand, or selling flowers to stopped motorists, though one man told NECN he has a permit.

And how about earning a buck by washing windows, but look at what happens here when this man is not finished, the light turns green and he's stranded in the middle of the street.

It's an unsafe situation that needs to change, according to Boston City Councilor Michael Ross, who says there is already an ordinance on the books to address panhandling near ATMs and banks, but it does not cover guys in the street.

"You can stand out anywhere in our city and ask people for money and no one should tell you otherwise, that's your right, that's your right to do it," Ross said. "But when you start to lay a hand on someone, when you start to get into the line of traffic, when you start to be aggressive, intimidating and in people's faces, that crosses a line."

Worcester is out in front on this issue, the City Council there will vote next week on a pair of ordinances to ban aggressive panhandling and anyone from standing in medians holding signs, from panhandlers to Little Leaguers to politicians.

ACLU Staff Attorney Sarah Wunsch is skeptical the law would be applied evenly in Worcester or Boston.

"We know those laws won’t be enforced against them and that violates the first amendment because the city would be picking an choosing which ideas get to be expressed in these places, but somebody asking for help would not be permitted to," Wunsch said.

But what to do so people don't have to beg for money, a conflicted Mayor Tom Menino says government needs to do more to help.

"Do I want to punish people because they're homeless or because they're coming out of addiction? No, I don't, but they can't harass people as they walk the streets or sit in their cars. That's one thing I won't tolerate. I honestly feel sorry for these folks," Mayor Menino said.

So expect this to come up at a city council committee meeting in the next few weeks, with an ordinance proposed thereafter.

Councilor Ross says in Boston, the maximum fine possible would be $300 for this sort of offense, and though the specifics have yet to be worked out, many of these panhandlers are homeless. The ordinance would be enforced by police.

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