Larger fines, possible jail time and language that attempts to shut down panhandlers at any well-traveled, higher-speed intersections are now part of a Wichita ordinance approved by the City Council on Tuesday. It’s a major step at reducing a nuisance for drivers.
It’s the latest attempt to reduce the number of homeless Wichitans – and others pretending to be homeless – standing on medians and at intersections where traffic is heavy and moving quickly.
Let’s hope this attempt works. What can be seen as a drastic crackdown on Wichita’s homeless is also addressing a safety issue that shouldn’t burden drivers.
Panhandlers are an unnecessary distraction for drivers when eyes should be focused on the street, especially during a busy holiday shopping period.
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It appears to have become more common in the past year. In May, an argument about who could occupy turf at Seneca and Maple for panhandling led to a scuffle between three people. One was accused of aggravated battery and other charges.
Police addressed the problem by taking an educational role in moving panhandlers off streets. They encouraged drivers to stop giving money and instead hand the panhandler a brochure with information on finding food and services.
It may have cut into panhandlers’ revenue, but not enough to make them disappear. Police got Council approval Tuesday on two ordinances. Panhandling becomes illegal at downtown lights or other intersections where the speed limit is 40 mph or higher.
A new wrinkle prohibits passing anything between a driver and pedestrian, and police can cite the driver as well as the panhandler. Because the city’s changes involve placing blame as much on the givers as the receivers, it may take Wichitans becoming less charitable to make them effective.
Police who witness offenders will start with warnings, then step up to fines of up to $500. Jail is possible for repeat panhandler offenders and – highly theoretically – generous drivers who could only be called serial givers.
The ban on giving at intersections will have an effect on charitable organizations that have stood on medians for donations. Like the Wichita Fire Department, which moved its “Fill the Boot” campaign from medians to retail parking lots, charities will have to find new options.
Police and the City Council were right to take steps to make it tougher to panhandle at well-traveled intersections. There’s little way of telling whether a panhandler is homeless, or not homeless and simply trying to make money. Even the most charitable drivers would admit that a median with no panhandler is safer than one with someone holding a sign soliciting donations.