A proposal aimed at reducing panhandling on city streets has hit a nerve in Kansas City, Missouri, so city officials are taking a step back and plan to rework it.
On Thursday, more than 70 people packed a room at City Hall to testify both in support and against the measure. Proponents argue panhandling has gotten out of control in their neighborhoods, while opponents say the measure would punish homeless people.
Introduced as a way to protect pedestrians and motorists, the proposed ordinance says pedestrians can only be in an intersection for as long as it takes to cross the street.
But supporters of have made it clear that it’s intended to cut back on the growing number of people asking for money on the city’s medians and highway exits.
Police say complaints about panhandlers has spiked in the last year.
Testifying before a city council committee, John Bordeau, who lives in the Historic Northeast neighborhood, said panhandlers often gather at the intersection of The Paseo and Independence Avenue.
“People come off of I-35 over the bridge there and the first thing they see is people at almost every corner at almost every time of day… they typically leave behind an ocean of trash,” Bordeau said.
Bordeau said not only does that give a bad first impression of his neighborhood —it’s also a safety risk.
“I’ve seen rear-end accidents because of people stopping to give money, I have seen people on the corners step into the lanes with their signs and you have to avoid them,” Bordeau said.
Diane Faelber is an Uber driver, who lives in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood. She said she sometimes feels threatened by panhandlers.
“I come up on medians and people are sitting there with their feet out in the street, daring you to hit them,” Faelber said. “They come approaching the cars in an aggressive manner.”
But Jeremy Ruzich, who also lives in the Historic Northeast, said banning people from medians and highway exits doesn’t solve the problem — it just hides it.
“None of us want to see our fellow citizens resorting to panhandling. But I ask if our consciences would be OK with us pushing them out of sight and fooling ourselves into thinking that these complex poverty-based problems are solved,”
Several people testified that enacting this proposal could push homeless people or people dealing with mental illness to seek social service resources rather than ask for money from drivers.
Austin Strassle, a mental health caseworker for Truman Medical Centers, says his clients have often had negative experiences with social service agencies. He says they sometimes face discrimination, especially based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I believe that this ordinance further criminalizes poverty, addiction, mental illness, and homelessness — all under the guise of pedestrian safety,” Strassle said.
Councilwoman Jolie Justus agreed. She said no single proposal will solve the systemic issues that result in people being homeless or asking for money.
But she said they can write a measure that makes it safer to walk in the city.
“I also want to make sure that if we’re going to pass a pedestrian ordinance that it is truly a pedestrian safety ordinance,” Justus said.
The transportation and infrastructure committee will revisit the issue September 27.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.