L.A. Debates $500 Fine For Begging

On the skid-row sidewalk at San Pedro and Fifth here, a barefoot man in tattered clothes approaches a blue-suited businessman. As the businessman tries to sidestep him, the man grabs his forearm and matches him stride for stride to the end of the block, holding out his other hand for money.

But under a proposed ordinance the Los Angeles city council is considering today, such in-your-face begging may soon carry a $500 penalty and up to six months in jail.

The proposal is part of a growing trend of so-called quality-of-life laws that many US cities have adopted since 1990. Such laws, which crack down on everything from panhandling to subway scofflaws, are intended to help prevent more serious crimes.

Yet Los Angeles's panhandling proposal, observers say, goes farther than what any other city has done. Solicitors here could be cited for coming within three feet of a person being solicited; blocking or impeding the path of that person; following or proceeding ahead or alongside; or touching the solicited person. "What L.A. has on the table is among the most detailed and onerous restrictions I have seen," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.

With the nation's second-largest homeless population - about 80,000 daily - Los Angeles politicians say they've had it with beggars who accost residents at automatic teller machines, freeway ramps, outdoor cafes, and public queues.

In public hearings today, council members will hear from all sides on the proposed ordinance. The wording has already been carefully crafted by constitutional experts using language that has passed court tests in smaller communities. But some say a United States Supreme Court ruling last week concerning free speech outside abortion clinics may strike it down.

Street medians and bus stops

Beggars would be banned near ATMs, banks, parking lots, street medians, bus stops, and anywhere more than three people stand in line. Squeegee bandits - who wash motorists' windows at stoplights in hopes of a handout - could also be banned.

"Our focus is not to indict homelessness or limit passive solicitation, but rather go after people who are coercive, aggressive, abusive," says city Councilman Joel Wachs, who introduced the legislation last month. "There are people out there who are not just homeless but are out to hit you up and shake you down," he says. "We don't think that's right."

Critics of the legislation say it criminalizes poverty and abandons widespread religious teachings that urge adherents to show charity to the poor. Fining people with no money, they hold, or jailing them when jails are already too overcrowded to accommodate hardened criminals, is ludicrous. Public officials should address the root causes of why indigent people roam the streets to begin with. "What do we expect these people to do?" asks Carol Sobel, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, who is scheduled to testify today. "They can't pay the fines, and we don't have room for them in jail. Isn't there something better to do with our resources?"

Promising a court battle if the ordinance is passed, Ms. Sobel says many of the harassment laws are already on the books and some proposed ones are unconstitutional. "The Supreme Court has said, 'Wait a minute, you can't have an amorphous floating bubble [around a person],'" she says.

But supporters say the laws address concerns of public safety and comfort in civic places. The number of incidents in which residents report being afraid and uncomfortable is on the rise, they note, and are linked to other statistics of disorder and violence.

They concede that more is needed to deal with root causes, but hold that similar local laws have been effective without having to jail or fine beggars and without straining limited police resources or jails. "It's not like we are going to go out and arrest every panhandler," says Sgt. Gary Gallinot, chief adjutant for the Santa Monica police department, which passed a strict panhandling law in 1995. "We want to have a dialogue and have a look at root problems, but we've found that having a panhandling law is really a useful tool for law enforcement."

Santa Monica's ordinance

In the first year under the Santa Monica ordinance, only 16 were arrested, Sergeant Gallinot says. But the law has given street officers added authority in keeping infractions from happening. Educational programs adopted there and in nearby Studio City have also instructed caring citizens not to give money to panhandlers but instead to local social organizations.

Los Angeles leaders say they are heeding the wishes of constituents who are fed up with crime and want to go a step further than other municipalities from New York to San Francisco, where concerted crackdowns have been successful.

Some feel that may require a more evenhanded approach. "We need to develop a humane program that allows businesses and residents to do something positive to combat panhandling [but also] provide real assistance to those on the streets," says Councilwoman Laura Chick, who is undecided about the final form of the current measure.

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