Subway Begging: New York Advocates Seek Rehearing

NO, you can't. Yes, you can. No, you can't. It has been a confusing time for people who panhandle in the New York subways, especially for those who follow court decisions. First, the New York City Transit Authority imposed a ban on begging when the number of outstretched palms and pitches began to seem like a tide. Then, a federal district court judge decided such a rule violated of freedom of speech.

Earlier this month, the Second United States Circuit Court of Appeals said transit officials may indeed ban soliciting. Advocates for the homeless are moving to have the case reheard by the circuit court. If that fails, they plan to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The latest ruling has, of course, delighted transit officials.

``We think it will help us in our efforts to improve the environment of the subway system, and reduce the threatening behavior that discourages people from using it,'' says spokesman Tito Davila. Ridership in the first quarter of 1990 went down 1 percent despite a total revamp of the system, including shiny new trains and spruced-up stations.

However, Doug Lasdon, executive director of the Legal Action Center for the Homeless, says the decision showed insensitivity.

``From the beginning, we've agreed to very strict limits - nothing that impedes traffic or harasses or annoys, not near exits or token booths. We were just going for simple begging, for asking a question,'' Mr. Lasdon says.

In the most recent ruling, organized charities were told they may continue to ask for money; only individuals would be affected. One of the judges dissented sharply on this point.

Geoff Potter, a pro bono attorney for the panhandlers, says the resolution of this case could have national implications. ``Other communities have been looking for ways to get beggars out of sight,'' Mr. Potter says, ``and this decision is encouragement. It says that the Constitution doesn't protect the poor the same way it protects the rich. It says that organized charitable groups can collect money to help the needy, but the needy can't collect money to help themselves.'' This is one of the points on which advocates hope the case will be reheard.

Meanwhile, the system's 3.5 million daily riders may be more concerned with other issues. In a 1988 Transit Authority survey, riders listed crime in the subways as their chief concern, followed by train delays and uncleanliness.

Transit officials, criticized for a reluctance to help the thousands of homeless who live in subway tunnels and stations, say the authority is not a social agency. Still, it has contracted a private agency to woo the homeless to shelters.

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