Portland Press Herald

While the decision may draw a court challenge, Portlanders and visitors to the city reacted positively Tuesday to a City Council vote Monday to ban panhandling and other activities in city street medians.

Leah Ledoux of Portland said the ban is needed because she has given money to intoxicated panhandlers on medians and she worries that they might stray into traffic.

“They’re right there in the middle of the street with traffic coming on both ends. It’s not safe,” Ledoux said.

The City Council voted 6-0 Monday to ban loitering in the city’s street medians, including to ask for money. Some of the councilors reversed their votes on a similar proposal a year ago, saying the increasing number of panhandlers around the city has created a real safety risk.

The ban won’t take effect until Aug. 15, but panhandlers may already be feeling less welcome. Several people approached on Tuesday as they stood in street medians with signs asking for money declined to give their names or be interviewed.

Ben Algeo works in Portland and said that, while there is a legitimate safety concern, part of the reason for the ordinance is to make the city look better to visitors.

Matt McCloskey, a visitor from New Hampshire, agreed that the ban makes sense for the sake of safety. “If somebody has an addiction, or they’re woozy or something, they could step into traffic,” McCloskey said.

While not critical of the ban, some said the action was about more than safety.

“It’s sad though. It’s not an easy situation.”

“It’s a tourist town and that’s definitely part of it,” said the 21-year-old. “I think the initiative solves a small part of a bigger problem. There’s still a lot of poor in Portland, some homeless and some not homeless. If they’re off the median, they’re just going to be on benches.”

Doug Buck strummed his guitar and sang on an Exchange Street sidewalk Tuesday, while collecting tips in his guitar case. Buck said he was homeless in San Francisco, but preferred playing for donations and collecting recycleables instead of panhandling for money.

“There were 10 times (number of) the homeless people there, though. You wouldn’t be able to walk up and down here without, you know, 20 times, ‘Got a cigarette? Got any spare change?'” Buck said pointing down Exchange Street. “It does get annoying … but how are you going to try to stop it? What, are you going to throw them in jail?”

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said that when the ban takes effect next month, city police will start warning people to leave the medians. standing in medians.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, meanwhile, continues to consider legal action against the city for infringing on First Amendment rights, said, Zachary Heiden, the group’s legal director.

“The courts have allowed the government to regulate free expression in public places. What’s not allowed is bans of speech activity, which the city of Portland has now done,” Heiden said.

Heiden pointed out that the ordinance prohibits all median activity, including political campaigning as well as panhandling.

While some opponents of the ban have said the police department and city councilors simply want to make panhandlers less visible, Heiden said he does not think that is true.

But, Heiden said, “for members of the public that are supporting the ordinance, I do think so.”

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