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Councilman Proposes Panhandling Permits

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You have to spend money to make money, or so the saying goes. It's a principle 1st District City Councilman Bruce Tyler is trying to extend with a proposed ordinance requiring panhandlers to obtain a $25 license from Richmond Police.

"We have to be compassionate of our homeless," Tyler says, "but we have to be respectful of our residents."

Under his proposal, police would issue the permits, which would contain a photo of the license holder and restrict the person to a single intersection. The ordinance says panhandling has a "disruptive effect on the efficient flow of traffic" and is "hazardous" for motorists and panhandlers alike.

It's the statute that's hazardous, says Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU.

"If it's a traffic hazard, why are they giving you a permit to do it?" Willis asks. "First of all, the right to panhandle is constitutionally protected speech. That means that the city can't restrict it without having a very good reason for doing so."

If City Council passes the ordinance into law, Willis says, the ACLU will seriously consider filing a lawsuit against the city.

Tyler says the legislation is being carefully crafted to avoid such a showdown and says he and the city attorney's office have been working to find ways around such a lawsuit. Previous attempts by the city to curb panhandling initially sought to make large swaths of the city off-limits, and the city had to focus the measure on the geographic area -- near ATMs or ABC stores only — to pass muster.

Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as Memphis, Tenn., require panhandlers to have some kind of permit, says Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C. She's also aware of successful lawsuits challenging similar laws because the idea that one must "go out and get a permit before they can communicate their message," she says, goes against the idea of constitutionally protected free speech.

Robert Grady III, 52, agrees with Willis. On a recent Sunday he stands in front of the 7-Eleven at Grace and Harrison streets. He says sometimes he works, sometimes he doesn't.

"If you're panhandling, where are you going to get $25 from? Be for real," he says, then asks for a dollar to buy a hot dog. S



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