By Chris Bernardo, President
Commercial District Services LLC
Recently I was asked to do a presentation on the issue of panhandling and to offer recommendations on what strategies can be employed by a business improvement district to treat the issue. A recent article in the Star Ledger regarding the ACLU’s challenge of two anti-panhandling ordinances in New Brunswick was timely and provides further support and evidence that alternative means for discouraging panhandling in our commercial districts are needed.
From my experience in dealing with the issue of panhandling in commercial districts in cities like Newark and Jersey City, the enactment of anti-panhandling laws and the “enforcement” of such laws, does very little to treat the problem and to get the solutions that business owners are looking for. The issue of panhandling is a complex social issue that has to take into account two sides: 1) The desire of the business owner to preserve the attractiveness of the environment in front of their store and to ensure that customers are not deterred from visiting the district; and 2) The public’s own conflicted feelings about panhandling and the empathy that we all feel for those less fortunate than others…a feeling which resonates strongly during the holiday season.
For those who are familiar with the legal issues surrounding panhandling and loitering laws around the nation, it’s common knowledge that at some point, the constitutionality of these laws are challenged, mostly on the grounds that the act of asking for money is protected speech under the First Amendment. Some communities have moved toward more specific language in their anti-panhandling legislation to further define and prohibit the act of “aggressive” panhandling, which has merit and is more likely to be upheld by higher courts when challenged, however, the issue with aggressive panhandling ordinances is that most panhandling is not aggressive in nature. In reality, those who depend on panhandling focus on passive forms of begging that are well planned and are meant to attract, not deter potential donations.
The issues that most business owners are faced with as a result of chronic, passive forms of panhandling are the conclusions that are drawn by potential shoppers when they are presented with panhandlers on the street and the questions that they ask themselves: Am I safe here? What is going on around me that leads this individual to panhandle? Is this a place where I want to spend my shopping dollars? These are all questions that may run through the mind of a shopper and it reflects a bigger question that must be asked and answered…What does this panhandling activity say about the values of this district and are those values consistent with my own?
For those who own businesses and those of us who manage business districts, it’s important to understand what values are being advertised and how those values affect business. In dealing with panhandling within the context of values, on the part of district stakeholders and the public at-large, I would offer the following ideas to be considered:
In conclusion, anti-panhandling programs must be managed and include a balance of formal (laws/law enforcement) and informal (communication/Ambassador engagement) strategies that allow district stakeholders and those engaged in panhandling to communicate effectively and negotiate the terms and conditions by which public sidewalks and streets will be used to exercise individual rights and uses. BIDs and BID managers are positioned perfectly to bring public and private voices together to identify and implement sound strategies that address issues such as panhandling in ways that are effective and respectful of the differing interests within a commercial district.
Chris Bernardo is the owner of Commercial District Services LLC, a leading provider of management and outdoor maintenance and ambassador services to business improvement districts. For the last 20 years, Chris has devoted his professional life to the revitalization of commercial districts and the improvement of public spaces. Chris shares his thoughts about issues that affect public spaces on publicspaces.com and also shares pertinent articles relating to the public space management industry. Chris can be reached at 212-608-1081 and at email@example.com.