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Chase Billingham: New laws will criminalize homeless

On Tuesday, the Wichita City Council took aggressive action to curtail the activities and freedom of the city’s homeless population. Through their unanimous approval of a pair of new ordinances restricting begging and panhandling, they have introduced a broad and highly punitive new regime that is likely to ensnare and criminalize many of Wichita’s most vulnerable residents.

One of these ordinances prohibits people from asking for money on the side of the street. Though it was promoted as a way to increase public safety by preventing pedestrians from being struck by moving cars at highway interchanges, this ordinance may also escalate police crackdowns on the homeless in the city center. Within most Wichita neighborhoods, not all streets will be subject to this new law — it applies only to streets with a speed limit 40 mph and higher and to arterial streets throughout most of the city. But it applies to every street within what is called a “congested area,” and one of the changes that the new ordinance makes is to amend the definition of “congested area.” Whereas previously the term “congested area” applied only to a portion of downtown Wichita, it will now encompass all of downtown, Old Town, the Commerce Arts District, and parts of Delano.

The other ordinance is designed to regulate “aggressive” panhandling, but it is written so broadly that there is likely to be substantial leeway in its interpretation. The language of the ordinance asserts that “it shall be unlawful for any person to engage in harassing or aggressive contact with another person in any public place.” Importantly, though, the ordinance defines “contact” in an extremely vague manner. How to determine if a given action reflects “aggressive contact” will presumably be up to the police, but a broad reading suggests that it could apply to anyone simply asking a passerby for money. Such “contact” will now be illegal on all streets and sidewalks, and in parks, parking lots, and any other place that the public has access to.

Violation of the first ordinance will lead to penalties including up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail, while violation of the second may result in $500 in fines and six months in jail. Such a substantial escalation in punishment for some offenses could lead to greater surveillance, arrest, and incarceration of Wichita’s poor and homeless residents, which would compound, not alleviate, the problems that the homeless face by making it even harder for them to secure stable housing and employment.

As I have documented in recently published research, Wichita has a long history of targeting the homeless for removal and punishment in its attempts to cultivate a vibrant urban core that might appeal to tourists and the middle class. The new ordinances are simply the latest examples of city leaders’ attempts to address the problem of urban homelessness by targeting homeless people themselves. These measures are not just morally ambiguous and legally dubious; they are also unnecessary. Though they serve as easy scapegoats, the homeless are not to blame for the sluggishness of progress in downtown Wichita. We can create an integrated and welcoming downtown in which people of all backgrounds can live, work, and play. Cracking down on minor offenses like these is not the way to achieve that goal.

Chase Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.