Rockford Needs to Get Tough on Panhandlers

By Michael Kleen

June 29, 2013
Rockford Register Star

Encountering panhandlers is a regular occurrence in Rockford. We have all seen the men holding signs along State Street or at bus stops. Many of us have been approached on the street in downtown Rockford. Often a simple “no” will suffice. Other times, the beggars are more insistent and follow their target down the street.

All of this is bad for Rockford. Aggressive panhandling has gotten out of control in our city—it chases away customers from business districts, makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and gives Rockford a negative reputation. It is a form of emotional and financial abuse.

It would be unconstitutional to outright ban panhandling. Instead, we need to better enforce the laws we already have on the books, tighten restrictions, and better inform the public about where and when panhandling is against the law.

The Rockford Police Department has published a pamphlet called “Don’t Give Where it Won’t Help,” which explains Rockford’s current ordinance regarding aggressive panhandling. This pamphlet is available for free and should be in every store, church, and public building in Rockford.

Panhandling is prohibited in Rockford after sunset and before sunrise. During daylight hours, it is prohibited at a bus stop, in any public transportation facility, in a vehicle which is parked or stopped on a public street, in a sidewalk café, in a public parking garage, within 20 feet of a church or place of worship, within 20 feet of a retirement or nursing home, within 20 feet of an ATM machine, and within 20 feet of a residential living facility where people with physical or developmental disabilities are the primary residents.

The ordinance specifically prohibits touching, blocking a person’s path, or preventing entrance or exit of a building, following, using profane or abusive language, or soliciting as a group during an act of panhandling. It is important for citizens of Rockford to know these restrictions and inform their friends and relatives, as well as visitors from out of town. Education, however, is not enough.

Rockford’s ordinance against aggressive panhandling (sec. 19-42) should be strengthened. I encourage our city council to add the following restrictions to panhandling during daylight hours: 1) Within 50 feet of a business, museum, or office building. 2) In a public park. 3) On private property, unless the panhandler is in physical possession of written permission from the owner or lawful occupant thereof.

I would also criminalize false or misleading solicitation. This would include making false or untrue statements, disguising oneself as a veteran or disabled, or using money obtained for a specific purpose (e.g. food or gas) to be spent on anything else (e.g. liquor). The City of Orlando, Florida Municipal Code provides a good example to follow.

We ought to have a compassionate and generous society, but giving money to panhandlers is counterproductive because that money is often spent to feed an addiction. Rockford is known for its charities and social services. Anyone in need can find food, clothing, and shelter. There is no reason for them to beg on the street. By strengthening our laws against aggressive panhandling, and by educating the public about those laws, we can go a long way toward removing this social problem.

Icon_smallMichael Kleen is an author, publisher, and local historian. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in History from Eastern Illinois University and M.S. in Education from Western Illinois University. He lives in Rockford, Illinois where he owns and operates Black Oak Media, Inc.

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