The City of Murray has seen an increase in panhandling over the last few years, which has the city council looking for ways to control it. After discussing public comments on Murray’s panhandlers at last month's city council meeting, Mayor Jack Rose charged the city attorney with drafting an ordinance that would make begging illegal. Thursday night the city council will get an update from the city attorney on the possible ordinance.
How would such an ordinance impact the community?
A glance at the Calloway County quick reference directory lists at least 8 places that offer assistance with housing, food, and utilities. Soup for the Soul makes 9 it opened just three months ago. It serves around 50 people per evening. It also connects people with other assistance services.
“I had a lady that went from being homeless to having an apartment, I’m gonna say, within a week, from the resources she gathered here,” said Soup for the Soul co-founder Debbie Smith.
Mayor Jack Rose said the city provides enough assistance for those in need that they shouldn’t have to panhandle. Some council members agree. So, they were briefed on other communities with existing panhandling ordinances like Bowling Green, Hopkinsville and Paducah. Police there say they rarely issue citations that bring possible consequences like fines, jail time, or both.
“You are just putting one more barrier between that person and getting out of homelessness,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “So it doesn’t serve any positive purpose other than to immediately remove that person from wherever they might be doing the activity. You’re pretty much ensuring that they have to go back to doing similar activity for a much longer time. So it’s completely counterproductive to the city’s goals.”
Tars said a better way to address panhandling is by getting input from the panhandlers themselves.
For three weeks, we searched for a panhandler in Murray who would speak with us for this story. They typically stand at traffic choke points next to Walmart and Kroger. Of the three approached, one declined, another accepted but was later unreachable, and language barriers prevented communication with the third.
But back at Soup for the Soul, there is someone with a little insight into homelessness and panhandling. Don Roberts is there nearly every day the kitchen is open, eating and chatting with friends. He moved to Calloway County to live with his sister and escape homelessness in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He lived on the streets of Fort Lauderdale for a year after being released from 26 years in prison. He says he could never bring himself to panhandle because he had some income from Veterans’ Affairs and knew where to find services. He thinks most panhandlers are scamming people, but he’s also wary of an anti-panhandling ordinance.
“Tell you what, what you really need to do is get off your duffs and actually go become homeless for about 30 days. Your whole attitude would change,” Roberts said.
Roberts said council members should first talk to panhandlers to find out what they need before passing and ordinance that affects them. Mayor Jack Rose said he hasn’t done that.
“I do not participate in that. I do not stop and drop money into whatever they are taking it up in. So, I’m more interested at this point to what the legal options are for us. And if there are options and we implement those, then I would leave it up to our law enforcement people to handle that,” Rose said.
Councilman Jason Pittman said an anti-panhandling ordinance would be directed toward transients and he doesn’t want it to harm community members in need.
“We wanna make sure that if you need help in Murray, we’re giving you help,” Pittman said. “But we also want to have consequences for those that pass through our community that really don’t have any ties here, that are in it just for financial motivation, are in it for the wrong reason.”
Debbie Smith isn’t sure an ordinance would address the poverty that underlies begging. She said she doesn’t like to see panhandling but thinks there may be better ways to deal with it than by passing an ordinance.
“If you just outlaw it, they’ll go to another town that doesn’t outlaw it. That’s the reason some of them told me they were here now,” Smith said. “They’ve been run off other places.”
While Murray is looking into an ordinance to control panhandling, legal rumblings at the federal level may render similar ordinances across the nation unconstitutional.
“The Supreme Court just earlier this year weighed in on a freedom of speech case that is directly relevant to the panhandling issue,” Eric Tars said. “Given the strength of the Supreme Court ruling, I would guess that just about any anti-panhandling ordinance is going to have a very difficult time surviving constitutional scrutiny.”
Murray City Attorney Warren Hopkins said he is taking the ruling into consideration. He will present his findings at tomorrow night’s city council meeting.