New law targets Detroit panhandlers; supported by civil liberty groups

Larry is a frequent panhandler in Midtown, sometimes playing drums for money.

Panhandlers in Detroit will have to show some decorum when begging for money – or face up to 90 days in jail, under a new city ordinance to go into effect in August.

The ordinance, supported by civil liberty groups, seeks to find middle ground in a debate over the rights of panhandlers.

The law replaces an overly broad city ordinance that was struck down in 1996 because it banned all panhandling, a violation of the First Amendment. Wayne County has a similarly broad law.

The new law is anything but broad. Beginning in September, panhandlers will be banned from begging near an ATM, bus station, public restroom and businesses where people line up.  They can’t touch anyone or pursue money after someone says no. In other words, they must show some tact.

And so, too, must police.

To many homeless people in Detroit, police often violate panhandlers’ rights. Police have been seen harassing, frisking and even removing panhandlers from downtown and the Cass Corridor in increasing numbers over the past two years. While Cass Tech High School was being demolished last summer, I witnessed police insulting and threatening panhandlers, who later claimed cops drove them to the city limits and dumped them off. Police didn’t return calls for comment at the time.

For decades, panhandling has been a perplexing issue in Detroit. While panhandlers scare off some people and hurt the city’s image, many are mentally ill and unable to care for themselves. Some are drug addicts and alcoholics. Others fell on hard times in a city with a steep unemployment rate.

The new ordinance strikes a balance between the rights of panhandlers and the public and could become a model nationwide.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.