Charleston City Council is considering ordinances that would place some prohibitions on panhandlers. One ordinance would restrict where people could solicit money. Another would require anyone asking for money to obtain and display a permit.

These are not simple matters for a variety of reasons.

Charleston leaders want to do something about panhandling.  Mayor Danny Jones says the police get complaints every day about homeless people engaged in aggressive solicitation, but he says currently there’s not much they can do about it.

The city cannot simply outlaw panhandling.  Cities have tried that and have been unsuccessful because the courts typically see panhandling as a form of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.  The government cannot restrict speech based on its content.

Charleston is trying to craft its ordinance to meet constitutional muster, and that’s not easy.

First, the city wants to require anyone soliciting money, whether it be the homeless or an organization, to first obtain a permit, which the solicitor has to display at all times.  City attorney Paul Ellis says that requirement will let the city and law enforcement know who is soliciting.

“All we’re doing is we are putting something in place so the public knows who they are giving money to,” Ellis said.   That would certainly be a convenience for those hit up for donations, but the permit—even though it’s free—may well be construed by a judge as an illegal precursor to speech.

The city also wants to make certain areas off limits to any kind of solicitations, from beggars to politicians waving campaign signs. These would be busy streets and intersections, high traffic areas that present a public danger.

“We’re not trying to stop people from exercising their constitutional right of free speech,” said Charleston City Councilwoman Becky Ceperley, lead sponsor of the ordinances and chair of the Homeless Task Force.  “The issue is keeping people safe.”

The homeless issue is a conundrum; Well-meaning communities provide services for the homeless, but the better the services, the more people show up to take advantage of them. Charleston’s homeless problem has gotten worse, and police say it’s been accompanied by more crime.

“They come from different parts of the country,” said Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper, adding that the police have arrested nearly 250 people just since September who list their address as “the streets of Charleston.”

This is a complicated and frustrating problem that every city faces.  Give credit to Charleston for bringing together community leaders, including those who work with the homeless, to try to find a solution. The city has even met with the ACLU to try to work out constitutional issues.

Mayor Jones has a good piece of advice for his citizens.  If you want to do something for the homeless, avoid giving a handout to the panhandler and instead make a donation to a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen.


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