Saks Fifth Avenue, the Kroger Co. and other Cincinnati corporations that have begged for city subsidies will soon have panhandling licenses, if Cincinnati Progressive Action (CPA) gets its way. So will city council members and other political candidates who ask for contributions.
At a June 23 meeting at Buddy's Place in Over-the-Rhine, about 40 people met to discuss the city's new panhandling ordinance — and how to resist it.
The ordinance states that any person making "any request in person while in a public place, for an immediate grant of money, goods or any other form of gratuity from another person(s), or engaging in such activity on private property" must register for a panhandling license. The requirement could apply not only to the poor but also to people who borrow 50 cents to make a phone call, politicians asking for campaign money and corporations asking for public subsidies, according to CPA member Lon Coleman.
"I think they've written it poorly and it applies to those they've not considered," Coleman said.
The law requires anyone who is soliciting to show a panhandling license to a police officer on demand. First-time violators receive a warning, but after that they face arrest on a fourth degree misdemeanor.
One of the least understood parts of the law is that a person doesn't need a license if he or she just holds a sign asking for money, according to Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. But if the person speaks and asks for money, then a license is needed.
That requirement is unconstitutional, Coleman said.
"This is definitely counter to protecting free speech," he said. "If you talk, you better register."
The ordinance criminalizes panhandlers, making them wear a badge of shame to identify themselves as poor, according to CPA members. Virgil Tuttle, who is homeless, compared the panhandling registration to Jewish people having to register and wear the Star of David during the Holocaust.
"This is in a smaller sense the same thing, the categorizing of a group," he said.
Since registration began June 16, CPA has organized large numbers of people to sign up with the city as panhandlers. By overwhelming the system and costing the city money to process applications, the activists hope to make city council reconsider the ordinance. In the first two weeks of registration, 110 people signed up, according to the Cincinnati Health Department.
After the health department receives a registration and takes a panhandler's photograph, the information goes to the police department, which issues the licenses. But the police department plans to send the photo IDs via mail, and, as critics have pointed out, homeless people don't always have mailing addresses.
Getty expressed reservations about the tactic of mass registration to protest the law.
"There are panhandlers who are confused regarding this action made to help them but not including them," she said.
Because the ordinance has a one-year limit, unless renewed, Getty warned CPA's mass sign-up could create the appearance that the law is working. In addition, registering panhandlers takes up time social workers might spend on other tasks, she said.
But CPA member Linda Newman defended the sign-up of teachers, doctors and others as panhandlers.
"The idea for this is to show solidarity with the poor and to get the city to revoke the law because it is embarrassing and a badge of poverty," she said.
As for social workers' caseload, it was city council that passed the law, Newman said. Furthermore, activists make sure needy panhandlers get to go in front of the line, she said.
Calling the panhandling law part of "Cincinnati's War on the Poor," CPA discussed other plans to address the ordinance. One suggestion was educating panhandlers about the law, which restricts where, when and how a person may ask for help.
At the Independence Day parade Friday in Northside, CPA members plan to march in costumes representing corporations, replete with faux begging licenses. They also plan to approach corporations that receive tax breaks and money from the city and ask them to put licenses on their buildings. They want to do the same with politicians soliciting campaign funds.
CPA's next meeting is at 7 p.m. July 14 at Buddy's Place. For more information, visit www.cincypanhandle.org. To register as a panhandler, go to the Cincinnati Health Dept., 1525 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine.