Cincinnati City Council could soon vote on a new ordinance that would prohibit panhandling near the city’s schools.
Councilman Christopher Smitherman proposed the ordinance, which would impose fourth-degree misdemeanor charges on individuals cited for asking for money within 50 feet of Cincinnati schools. The proposal drew controversy from advocates for the homeless and raised questions from some council members at an Oct. 26 Law and Public Safety Committee meeting. Smitherman chairs that committee, which could vote on the ordinance in the next few weeks.Smitherman said Cincinnati police approached him about the ordinance. He also cited recent school shootings as reason to be concerned about people gathering near schools, and said his ordinance seeks to address that concern from parents and educators.
“Who would ever believe that we would have young children or adults walking into schools and opening fire on babies?” Smitherman asked. “I’m trying to give our school system another tool to sort this out on the ground.”
But opponents pushed back, saying the ordinance merely criminalizes an activity that has nothing to do with those incidents and that similar laws have opened the city up to lawsuits in the past.
“There’s no statistical evidence that people who are panhandling pose a threat,” says Josh Spring, who heads the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. “We know that there are threats that happen to our schools. It’s scary. We have to do something about that. But one of those threats really isn’t panhandling. Adding to our existing law, based on something that we don’t have any proof of, will create problems down the road that we’ll all have to deal with.”
Spring cited legal wrangling over an anti-panhandling law passed in Cincinnati. In 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union won a case in the Ohio Supreme Court over an anti-panhandling law in the city, which it argued was unconstitutional because it violated individual’s First Amendment rights.
Cincinnati Public School Board member Melanie Bates said the board has reviewed the measure and generally supports it, though there were some questions about it. Bates says board members felt reassured by a clause in the ordinance that allows passive panhandling with signs or via musical performances and that the board is waiting on the finalized version of the ordinance to take a formal vote of support.
Cincinnati Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Bill Mooring also threw support behind the measure.
“I don’t know if we would change a whole lot,” he said, “but this would give us more teeth to handle any situation around our schools.”
Councilwoman Yvette Simpson is skeptical. She said she was worried the ordinance might not provide any additional help in keeping schools safe over existing laws and said it sends the wrong message about treatment of the homeless.
“My initial thought is that unlawful activity is unlawful activity, whether the person is poor, the person is rich or the person is homeless,” she said. “There’s already a separate code to deal with unlawful activity.”