INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana said it believes there are constitutional issues with Mayor Greg Ballard's proposal to ban panhandling in downtown Indianapolis.
"To say now that they cannot at all, I think is a real problem," said spokesperson Ken Faulk.
During his State of the City address Friday, Ballard called for a solicitation-free zone for the one square mile between North, South, East, and West Streets as well as the area around Victory Field and Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ballard said it is not an attack on the city's homeless.
"In fact, studies by the Coalition for Homeless Intervention and Prevention found that almost none of the downtown panhandlers were actually homeless," said Ballard. "The activities of these panhandlers are designed to prey upon the charitable instincts of Hoosiers and our guests."
Ballard said it's a persistent problem that business leaders say affects their customers.
"It really gets bad during the summer as well," said Tony Hiatt, General Manager of Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery. "I mean they tend to stand by the patio, ask for money from guests all day long all night long."
Ballard said the proposal would be modeled after similar ordinances in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Ft. Lauderdale.
But Faulk said panhandling is protected by the first amendment.
"Whether it's the Girl Scouts asking for money, the American Cancer Society, or someone asking for money for themselves, what we call a panhandler, that's protected by the first amendment," said Faulk. "Businesses can still have their placards on the street saying sandwich special today $4.95. Why can't a person who is seeking money put a placard on the sidewalk saying $4.95? For the purposes of the first amendment, those are viewed exactly the same."
City-County Council Vice-President John Barth said he believes changes need to be made to the proposal before it passes.
"I understand where the mayor's coming from and I want to support the downtown tourism industry, but we need to be cautious not to do an overstep," said Barth. "It even includes someone who is performing music and standing on the street corner playing the guitar with their case open. That would also be included and that's very passive and that's also what makes the city vibrant and alive is having street performers. So going that far, I think we need to dial it back a little bit."
At the corner of Illinois Street and Ohio Friday night, a man named Brad sat – sign in hand – asking for any spare change. He said he is homeless and needs the money in part for bus fare to search for a job. He said he understands people's concerns about aggressive panhandlers – those who seem threatening.
"That kind of stuff - absolutely. Send 'em to jail. Stop that. That would be great. You know," he said. "But just sitting here minding my own business – I think is fine."
"I know people have problems – a lot of people are out of a job and they need money," said Hiatt. "I understand that there might be a first amendment right there but I don't really know for sure. But what I do know is I think there are too many people taking advantage of panhandling in the city. I've been downtown for 12 years now and it seems like I see the same people year in and year out on each street corner that I walk past."
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