Scattered along State Street and surrounding neighborhoods, a particular group of aggressive panhandlers presents a predicament for local government officials.
A 20-year-old panhandling ordinance may undergo changes fashioned by Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, who seeks to provide a plausible solution for Madison businesses and panhandlers with the input of State Street police officers and merchants by stretching the boundaries of the law throughout the entire city.
“Anecdotally, it seems to be that panhandling has gotten worse; it has not only become more prevalent, but more aggressive,” said Ald. Zach Brandon, District 7, who also owns the downtown Laundry 101. “Anything that legislation or Mike can do that makes downtown a destination for shopping and entertainment is a good thing.”
The current law, which allows panhandling between the curb and light poles on State Street, will become obsolete within the next several years as the streetscape changes. Rather than using light poles and curbs as a benchmark, Verveer said he seeks to disallow panhandling in areas where people feel most vulnerable.
In effect, panhandling would be banned within 25 feet of open sidewalk cafés, intersections, ATMs and 12 feet from all city businesses, not exclusively those located on State Street and Capitol Square.
“My intention is not to ban panhandling by any means. I want to strike the balance between giving people more freedom from being harassed and allowing panhandlers to engage in the practice,” Verveer said. “It’s a tough balancing act to juggle.”
Under Verveer’s plan, menacing and aggressive panhandling outlawed under the 1985 law will still stand. Panhandlers may not touch, follow or harass shoppers, according to the law.
Although many Madison merchants fought to have panhandling completely banned, Verveer expressed discomfort with such a drastic change. According to Verveer, many argue the act of panhandling is protected under the First Amendment.
Homeless man Laverne Butson said he often witnesses menacing panhandlers and understands the plight of the affected businesses and customers.
“I have seen aggressive panhandlers and I don’t agree with it … some of them get pretty outrageous and stupid,” Butson said.
Madison Police Department Public Information Officer Mark Hanson said the crux of the current situation lies in the substance abuse of panhandling violators.
“The panhandlers know the rules, they understand them … [but] when alcohol becomes involved, they become aggressive,” Hanson said. “If we can provide more resources not only to enforce the law, but to provide education and jobs for these panhandlers, the problem would go away.”
According to Brandon, police officers have reacted very quickly to “aggressive, in-your-face panhandling.” The proposed changes to the ordinance will allow police officers to address the growing problem, he added.
The ordinance was introduced Tuesday at the City Council meeting and was referred to downtown officials for approval and editing. Verveer said he predicts it will circulate back to the City Council by June for debate and voting.