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‘Will work to pay fine’

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Chuck Cerankosky knows panhandlers. As the manager of Java's on Gibbs Street for the past three years, he's used to dealing with people who use the coffee shop's sidewalk seating as a "market for panhandling."

            He knows many of them by name, and he knows that many are either physically or mentally disabled. And while he says their presence is not good for business, he doesn't want to see them sent to jail.

            "We tell [panhandlers], 'You can't ask for money out here, you've got to move on.' And 90 percent of the time that does the trick," Cerankosky says.

            Thanks to legislation passed Tuesday, May 18, by Rochester City Council, anyone found guilty of aggressive panhandling will be fined $15 to $250. Getting caught again may mean jail time for up to 15 days.

            City Council's Lois Giess and Ben Douglas sponsored the legislation --- effective July 1 --- in an effort to make Rochester's streets safer and more attractive.

            "For a period of time, people who have been panhandling have become increasingly more aggressive," Giess says. "My hope is that [the legislation] will lead to changed behavior."

            And it's "aggressive" behavior that the legislation specifically targets: following, blocking, threatening, intimidating, or making physical contact with a person while soliciting. Basically, any public actions deemed aggressive by the standard of a "reasonable person" are illegal. Also illegal: soliciting near ATMs or banks, in municipal buildings, or in public parking garages, skyways, tunnels, and playgrounds.

            A similar piece of legislation was shot down by Syracuse's City Council last year.

            Many people attending the Rochester City Council vote objected to the legislation, calling it cruel and pointless. Meanwhile, others closely tied to the successes and failures of downtown feel it could help decrease aggressive panhandling.

            When giving her take, Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, cites the $416 million being used to develop downtown, and the 335 housing units --- some of them luxury --- proposed or under construction.

            These sorts of investments are "critical to stabilizing and enhancing the city's tax base," she says. Aggressive panhandlers, she continues, serve only to scare away prospective homeowners, renters, and entrepreneurs.

            "This legislation is not about penalizing people who beg for money --- it's about stopping people who ask for money in a threatening or frightening way," Zimmer-Meyer says.

            Downstairs Cabaret Producing Director Chris Kawolsky, who says he has struggled with aggressive panhandlers for years, plans to put the new law to use if necessary. If it empowers the police, he says, it will do the city good.

            "If a few people are stopped by the police, other people will get the message," Kawolsky says.

Adam McFadden is one of two council members who voted against the legislation (the other is Tim Mains). Before the vote Tuesday, McFadden worried that no complete study had been done to show the council "what these people are facing."

            "To fix a problem like [aggressive panhandling], you need a true task force that will study why people are begging for money and how to get people the help they need," McFadden says. "This legislation does not define that at all."

            Besides, the legislation was passed too quickly, without any real public dialogue, he says.

            Then there's the issue of free speech. Harry Murray, a professor of sociology at Nazareth College who specializes in homelessness, calls begging an important element of public discourse. Even if it weren't, he says, people have a right to do it under the First Amendment.

            "Begging is a matter of speech --- it's conveying the message that there is poverty in the country," Murray says.

            "The idea of criminalizing people for what they say or if they say something in the wrong place seems fundamentally un-American and all too in keeping with the spirit of the Bush Administration," he says. "The poor beg --- the rich advertise."

            Speaking at a press conference prior to the vote, Monroe County Green Party Chairman Dave Atias derided the legislation and its potential to simply displace the problem. "If [it] takes effect, you're still going to have people out on the street," he said. "Pretty soon we'll see people along 490 with signs that say 'will work to pay fine.'"

            Atias and other Greens issued a proposal that would create cooperative businesses in Rochester's poor neighborhoods. The co-ops, they said, could be funded through grant money and supported by local neighborhood associations. Atias, with more than a little optimism, said that hard work and a community effort could result in employment for many of Rochester's poor.

Like a badly-timed punchline, Rochester's panhandling legislation coincides with hefty cuts to public assistance in the state budget proposed by Governor George Pataki. Pataki's plan includes a 10 percent cut in welfare to families who have been on the rolls for over 10 years, and a penalty to any family not in compliance with Welfare-to-Work rules.

            "[Public assistance] is already a meager amount of money," says Kim Gilliland, associate director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State. "Every bit of $10 or $20 makes a difference [for these people]."

            Pataki has also proposed further lowering the level of public assistance for the working poor.

            "These cuts are incredibly punitive. They're affecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers," Gilliland says.

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