Aggressive-solicitation ordinance passes City Council

The full City Council approved a revised antibegging ordinance May 28 outlawing "aggressive solicitation" in public places.

The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office redrafted the ordinance after Hennepin County District Judge Beryl Nord ruled March 30 that it was too broad and violated First Amendment rights.

The ruling threw out a begging charge against a homeless man who was ticketed while standing near the Southwest intersection of Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, asking motorists for money.

The new ordinance defines aggressive-solicitation as a plea for money that is "disturbing and disruptive" and may include "approaching or following" pedestrians.

It specifically bars panhandlers from soliciting in the following public places: restrooms, bus or light-rail transit shelters, crosswalks, public transportation vehicles, sidewalk caf/s, parked cars, waiting lines or near ATM machines. The antibegging ordinance does not apply to people who "passively" stand or sit with a sign requesting money or donations.

Wedge neighborhood residents said at the May Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) meeting that panhandling underneath the I-94 entrance and exit ramps has been a problem.

Some board members said they are panhandled while waiting at stoplights in the car. Neighborhood complaints also led to shrubbery trimming at the underpass last year to limit places for panhandlers and homeless to hide.

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) explained at the LHENA meeting that police have had a difficult time eradicating the problem without a begging ordinance in place.

He said the land underneath the ramps is state-owned, so police can nab panhandlers there for trespassing. However, Niziolek said when the city lacked a begging ordinance, beggars could stand on the city sidewalk and solicit funds trouble-free.

He said the new ordinance would help with, but not solve, the aggressive-solicitation problem. Niziolek said panhandling is protected as free speech, and as long as panhandlers just stand there, there’s not a lot the city can do.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said she supports the aggressive-solicitation ordinance, saying it’s more tightly written than the begging ordinance and can increase penalties for violators.

However, City Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) said he felt it could be fine-tuned. Zerby, a lawyer, offered amendments to strike language making soliciting while under the influence of drugs or alcohol a separate misdemeanor. Zerby asserted that chemical dependency is an illness, but the Council defeated his amendments.

While aggressive panhandling occurs in Southwest — primarily near where Hennepin and Lyndale meet and in Uptown — major support for the ordinance came from the downtown business community.

Several downtown business leaders testified at a Council committee hearing May 19 that aggressive panhandlers erode the quality of life downtown and in nearby neighborhoods with intimidating tactics in bars and restaurants.

Downtown Council President and CEO Sam Grabarski said he’s routinely approached by aggressive panhandlers. He said the problem fuels a perception that downtown is an unsafe place.

Nicollet Mall restaurateurs testified about problems with pushy panhandlers. They said they’ve had beggars pull up chairs to patron’s tables and begin eating off of their plates.

Goodman said as a follow-up to the ordinance that she’d like to see more offenders referred to Restorative Justice programs. Restorative Justice is a program offering offenders a chance to make reparations to the community through community service, in lieu of fines. For many low-level misdemeanor offenders, there are revolving doors at jail that leave the city stuck with a $250 bill each time the county books an offender.