OKC panhandling ordinance part of a disturbing trend of criminalizing poverty

[Update: During public comments on the ordinance, a large majority of those speaking said that passing it would be a mistake. A final vote is still scheduled for Oct. 13.]

Today the Oklahoma City Council is holding a public hearing on an amendment to the city’s panhandling ordinance that would make it illegal to stand or walk in the median for the purpose of panhandling or collecting charitable contributions. A final hearing on the amendment is set for Tuesday, October 13th. Councilwoman Meg Salyer, who introduced the amendment, told The Oklahoman that she receives complaints “in the multiples every day” about panhandlers. The amendment would make panhandling from the median a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The amendment received pushback from other councilors when it was introduced last Tuesday. Councilman Ed Shadid said panhandling is evidence that the city has failed to invest in services to help those who find themselves out on the street. Councilman Pete White said in the meeting, “The other thing I’m concerned about is the number of social service agencies I heard from, not one of them said this is a good idea… All across the map they all said this is not a good idea.”

One reason that groups who work closely with the poorest citizens may be concerned is that criminalization of poverty is one of the root causes of people being trapped in poverty. From a 2014 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty:

“Criminalization measures waste limited state and local resources. Rather than addressing the causes of homelessness and helping people escape life on the streets, criminalization ‘creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back. … Arrests, incarceration, fines, and convictions prolong homelessness by creating new, sometimes nearly insurmountable barriers to obtaining employment and stable housing.”

access-to-justiceIt should be a serious concern that criminalizing panhandling in Oklahoma City will only serve to burden more people with fines they have no ability to pay. Though these initial fines may not put someone in jail, the fine can initiate a cycle that is devastating to individuals without the means to pay. As the Tulsa World recently pointed out, nearly a third of those booked into the Tulsa Jail last year were arrested on court debt-related complaints. With the Oklahoma City jail already facing a potential federal takeover due to “unsanitary conditions, negligent care of inmates, poor medical care, and outright abuse,” the city can hardly afford to send more people into a system that may be on the verge of breaking down.

We have more effective  solutions that don’t threaten to trap people in the criminal justice system. One solution highlighted in a report by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2012 serves as an example that could prove to be effective in Oklahoma City:

“The Palo Alto Downtown Streets Team was created in response to a Business Improvement District survey that identified homelessness and cleanliness as the two biggest issues facing local business owners. It was developed as a way to reduce panhandling, clean and beautify the downtown area, and give people who are homeless the opportunity to work. City officials, law enforcement, local businesses and volunteers join together to provide job opportunities and one-on-one assistance to people experiencing homelessness. Participants clean and sweep streets and business walkways in exchange for vouchers for food, shelter and other services to help them secure permanent employment and housing. Since the program began in 2005, more than 164 men and women have graduated into self-sufficiency.”

Nonprofits like Downtown Streets Team provide alternatives to criminalization. Investing in these types of solutions may require the city to increase its social services budget, but the return on the investment will be policies that restore dignity to a population that taxpayers would otherwise be subsidizing in jail.

For too long, criminalization has been our first response to social nuisances. It’s time to focus on fixing problems instead of trying to lock them away where they can’t be seen.

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9 thoughts on “OKC panhandling ordinance part of a disturbing trend of criminalizing poverty

  1. I agree, street cleaning or some other public service in exchange for vouchers & housing would be a good move in the right direction for some, but unfortunately most of the panhandlers on the streets don’t want to work for their handouts. When this problem started their signs used to read, ” Will work for food”, & I even offered to let some of them let me take them to my home to mow my lawn and rake the leaves was told that they could make more money by just staying on the corner. Just yesterday I saw a sign that read “Worthless bum looking for a handout”. It’s really become a joke with them. They even share their signs with others when they want a break. They even leave trash on the spot they were standing on when they leave.

  2. Also this action will stop firefighters from doing their annual “Fill the Boot” campaign. Laws like this are just hateful, mean spirited , lazy, unintelligent ways to address a problem. Electing officials who only see criminalization as the answer is the real crime. Find humane dignified ways to solve the problem. Quit being lazy and taking the easy way out.

  3. What is happening to these people is already a crime: Many of them work for a “boss.” He takes every penny they collect at the end of the day. He pays for their housing at a shoddy highway motel. He gives them enough money to buy food, some clothing, drink(?), and cigarettes; and he keeps for himself the money that remains. They will not “work for food,” because the boss doesn’t allow them to leave their collection post. Rather than arrest the panhandlers, the effort to decrease the practice should be applied to the bosses. Find them and arrest THEM. Panhandling was outlawed in Dallas, but enforcement has gradually dimenished and it thrives, as it will anywhere panhandling is criminalized.

  4. I live close to I-44 and the panhandling is really bad over here. I disagree with what the previous person said because the people I see a look too happy to be out there. I see the people getting food in Circle K and there is always a Hiring poster. It is free to get permits to operate a business so why doesn’t the city look into forcing the panhandlers to apply for permits? At least, maybe some will not want to pursue it and it’s not infringing on their civil liberties. I don’t know what the answer is but it’s a blight on the city that I am tired of looking at.

  5. I agree with you Tyler that it is not a solution to the problem and only makes matters worse for those who are living on the street, under the overpass, etc. The other side of the coin is that you have organized groups that also panhandle and are taking advantage of the generosity of someone willing to help. The program you mentioned above looks like a good start in helping those in need. Good job on the article. 😉

  6. It is very sad; I agree with not criminalizing because the dynamics in this article are exactly what happens. Many individuals on the streets suffer with addictions. survivors of domestic violence or are experiencing mental health issues. Instead of investing in more laws that put down human beings why don’t all of the cities look at resources that could help these individuals. Yes, I agree the bosses behind most of the signs need to be charged not the individuals holding the signs. I am grateful for those who helped a family member of mine when they found hard times. Walk a mile in their shoes before you judge them.

    This sums up what needs to happen:
    Nonprofits like Downtown Streets Team provide alternatives to criminalization. Investing in these types of solutions may require the city to increase its social services budget, but the return on the investment will be policies that restore dignity to a population that taxpayers would otherwise be subsidizing in jail.

    For too long, criminalization has been our first response to social nuisances. It’s time to focus on fixing problems instead of trying to lock them away where they can’t be seen.

  7. I work at a liquor store about 1/2 mile from I-40 and Meridian in OKC,… the number of panhandlers is unreal !!!! They are like a bunch of stray dogs begging from everyone they coming contact with, sometimes very forcefully . The Will Rogers World Airport is 2 miles further down the road. The first thing anyone from out of town sees is filthy homeless beggars!!!!! Great image OKC!!!!!!!! They harass customers, and steal fro local stores. will break open outlet covers at night to charge their cell. phones…. YES PEOPLE , THEY HAVE PHONES !!! . Wherever they are begging from looks like a junkyard because they leave there trash everywhere.You can see them just laying there on the sidewalks sleeping. What is the problem with banning panhandlers??? At least hold them accountable for their harassment of the public and littering!!!!!! If your only gripe is that charities can’t ask for money on the corners either,….. then it is a acceptable loss !!!!! JUST F.Y.I….. I HAVE OFFERED SOME JOBS BUT THEY ALL HAVE REFUSED TO WORK!!!! AS I WAS TOLD ” I DON’T REALLY WANNA WORK, THIS IS JUST FOR SHOW”!!!! I KNOW FOR A FACT ONE IS A CONVICTED CHILD MOLESTER !!! AND PEOPLE GIVE HIM MONEY!!!!!! AND NO, HE IS NOT NICE, OR SORRY, OR APOLOGETIC FOR HIS CRIME, HE WILL EVEN CRACK JOKES ABOUT IT.

  8. THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT THE POOR AND UNFORTUNATE WHO GOT THE SHORT END OF THE STICK . THESE PEOPLE ARE MOSTLY THE DEVIANT OUTCAST OF SOCIETY ,..WHO REFUSE TO BE PRODUCTIVE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY, AND DO NOT PAY TAXES AT THE END OF THE YEAR LIKE WE DO,
    SO WE ARE THE ONES PAYING FOR CLEANUP AND REPAIRS FOR WHAT THEY DAMAGE!!

  9. Recently I have found myself on a corner holding a sign . How dare you people judge the misfortuant ! Up until 2 weeks ago I had a job paying 3400+ a month , a house , and had just started making payments on a new car . Now I’m on the streets begging because no one in this God forsaken city (OKC) will give me a job and no organization will help me with gas money to get to where I know I have a job . So just keep thumbing your nose at the street people .It might be you someday . Do not judge lest you be judged someday by the heavenly father .

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