Sunday, November 14, 2010

Indianapolis' Failed Panhandling Ordinance

I don't know if it's just not being enforced, or it's an unworkable ordinance, but I don't think the revised panhandling ordinance* is being enforced.

What this does is expand the ordinance so as to cover a variety of activities that can't be done 50 feet from an intersection that has a stop sign or traffic signal between a pedestrian and a person in a vehicle. Everything from advertising, holding signs, soliciting, selling, and so on is banned.

I spoke out against the ordinance as it was proposed because I felt regulating signs was ridiculous. I felt it didn't leave enough room for political and social free speech, which I value highly. A lot of the other stuff I'm personally fine with being in there.

But since then, I've noticed it really hasn't helped the problem.

I have a client on the east side of Indianapolis, and I often take 38th Street to get to the location. This leads me to the intersection of 38th and Fall Creek, where I often see a few men from one of the nearby religious organizations waving some type of newspaper or pamphlet and distributing it to people in vehicles. That's not much of a problem, but I've also seen them stand in the median and walk into the middle of lanes and converse with people in vehicles, often still being inbetween a bunch of cars when the traffic signal turns green. One of these days, these young men are going to get run over or cause a traffic jam.

So I've called the non-emergency police dispatch number (327-3811) and made several reports within the past week. I'm assuming the police showed up and told the men to scram, but I saw the men out and about again on Friday, November 12th.

I believe the problem is the law is both too broad and that there are no specific punishments law enforcement can charge panhandlers with outside of telling them to leave. In the case of panhandling at highway exits and busy intersections like 38th St and Fall Creek, it is a public safety issue. Written warning the first time, and a fine that gets higher as the offences pile up. Maybe fine the employer as well if they're on the clock with a church or mosque in the area. And I bet these men will stop what they're doing after a few checks to the city are written.

*Note: Amazingly, this ordinance is still available despite it being voted on in 2009. Please let me know if it goes down and I'll re-host it on my Google Docs account.

EDIT: Please see my post in the comments section that clarifies a bit about the different types of panhandling.


  1. It seems to me that if the city's that worried about panhandling, they should deal with the underlying systemic problems, rather than trying to regulate it away.

    I'm curious -- do you feel that asking people for money is a form of speech that shouldn't be protected?

  2. I think it's important to differentiate between the panhandling that goes on downtown, and the panhandling that takes place around highway exits and busy intersections such as the one I referenced.

    The panhandling downtown is, generally, an annoyance but should stay legal. I personally believe those people should be free to shake their cups all day long. I think some sensible regulation, such as not doing it after dark and not approaching people (IE aggressive panhandling) is...well, sensible, and is actually being enforced by IMPD.

    But when they start doing stuff like getting in the medians and walking into stopped traffic, like they do at 38th and Lafayette and 38th and Fall Creek, that's where I believe public safety overrides any type of free speech rights. Yes, you have the right of free speech, but your speech is communicated just as well on the sidewalk as it is on the median or in the middle of stoped traffic. The panhandler is putting their person at danger and risks getting hit and potentially causing an accident, shutting down a busy intersection during the busiest hours of the day. They can communicate their message via a sign and standing on the sidewalk, which has fine visibility and doesn't create a situation where they expose themselves to danger.

    Also, panhandling is a reference to the act and isn't exclusive to asking for money. The panhandlers I mention in the post, to the best of my knowledge, freely distribute the fliers.

  3. Mmm, I daresay that I agree with you: this kind of legislation isn't enforceable. There's far too many intersections in our city to even begin to try to enforce it on any consistent basis.

    If the objective then is to make sure people stay safe and that the intersection remains open, then shouldn't we look into ways to make the intersections safer? The city designs and builds the intersections, after all. Heck, more pedestrian-friendly intersections could make all manner of pedestrians safer.

  4. Those men "panhandlers" are actually selling newspapers. I can remember seeing them back in the 1970s - long before you are born.

  5. Again, Anon 6:06, panhandeling is referring to the actual act. It doesn't matter if they're selling a good or service, advertising, begging for money, or performing sketch comedy. It's panhandeling.

    And I've always seen these papers to be religious in nature. I'm almost certain they're from one of the nearby churches or the Nation of Islam mosque.


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