CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston City Council will consider two ordinances aimed at cracking down on homeless panhandlers and solicitors.
The ordinances were introduced by the city’s Homeless Task Force during Monday night’s City Council meeting.
Earlier in the day, members met at the Covenant House in Charleston to discuss the proposals.
The first ordinance seeks to restrict people soliciting in areas with public safety concerns related to high vehicular traffic, especially intersections, and high pedestrian traffic such as outdoor dining areas.
The second ordinance requires anyone asking for money from other people, without offering anything of value in exchange, to obtain and display a permit. The permit is free of charge. The permit applies to individuals and non-profit groups, such as the Salvation Army, that do fundraising in public places.
City Councilwoman Becky Ceperley is the lead sponsor of the ordinances and chairs the Homeless Task Force. She said the proposals recognize free speech rights of all citizens so they can enjoy public places safely.
“It’s in no way trying to stop people — and that ought to be clear — we’re not trying to stop people from exercising their constitutional right of free speech. That’s not the issue. The issue is keeping people safe,” she said.
Paul Ellis, attorney for the City of Charleston, said the requirement for free permits for public solicitation will give the city and law enforcement a better handle of who is out there asking for money.
“All we’re doing is we’re putting something in place so the public knows who they’re giving money to,” Ellis said.
The punishment for soliciting without a permit would be a warning. A first citation would be community service. Several citations could lead to jail time.
To apply for a permit, a person will have to provide a photo identification and undergo a background check.
The Homeless Task Force started meeting in Oct. 2016. Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper said there’s been an uptick in transient crime since then.
“They have come from different parts of the country. We have dealt with that on the streets in different ways. Some of the ideas that came from this task force are going to make the streets safer,” Cooper said.
Since September, Cooper said police have arrested nearly 250 people who list their address as “the streets of Charleston.”
He said the ordinances will protect everyone, including the local working poor.
“We’ve got the working poor that should be able to go have a meal and not be assaulted outside. The conclusion we’ve all come to here is that we’re unified in that idea of safety for everybody and dignity for everybody,” Cooper said.
The entire City Council will have to vote on the ordinances before they can take affect.