Panhandling in Wichita

The City of Wichita cracks down on panhandling.

In today’s Wichita Eagle Chase Billingham has an excellent column explaining the recent changes to panhandling laws in the City of Wichita (Chase Billingham: New laws will criminalize homeless). An assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University, he makes important observations and warnings about the effect of these laws.

In his column, Billingham notes a problem with the ordinance designed to regulate “aggressive” panhandling: “Importantly, though, the ordinance defines ‘contact’ in an extremely vague manner.” I may have noticed the same problem in this example from Ordinance No. 50-643:

Section 2: “Contact” means the intentional action by any person which attempts to attract the attention of any other person for the purpose of inducing such other person to slow, stop or which obstructs or hinders the movement of such other person to facilitate a transfer of anything to or from either person.

Street theater in New Orleans. Would this be legal in Wichita? Click for larger.
What is an example of attracting someone’s attention to induce them to slow or stop? Busking. And it’s designed to encourage — “facilitate” — the transfer of money to the busker.

In the ordinance, the city says its purpose is to “regulate behaviors that are intimidating, threatening or harassing.” At the same time, the city takes actions that work in cross-purposes. In particular, the city has taken steps to allow — if not to encourage — more alcohol consumption. In 2016 laws were changed that both restricted and liberalized alcohol consumption. This year the city lobbied the state for laws that would establish “common consumption areas.” These are geographically-defined areas where free-range drinking is allowed. That is, you can drink outside in public, like on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Besides Old Town, the city mentioned Delano and College Hill as possible common consumption areas.

There is a reason why cities have long outlawed drinking on the streets and sidewalks. But I guess that no longer applies.

I wonder if the city is running the risk of creating a Disneyland downtown, where everything is planned, staged, and regulated. Our city planners set design standards for buildings, and then use the lure of our tax money to encourage compliance. Is there a purportedly problematic public park interfering with you plans for development? No problem. Just ask the city to redirect your tax dollars away from police and schools so that the park can be rebuilt at no cost to you — in a Disneyland style. Too much crime on the streets? The city will install expensive and obtrusive surveillance systems to protect you, and also to harvest revenue if you forget to activate your turn signal in time.

The city uses words like “vibrant” to describe its vision for downtown and other areas. In this commentary about Indianapolis we see the same issues at play. This is from Erika D. Smith: Tougher panhandling law would hurt Indy’s urban fabric:

Vibrant urban areas need organic, grass-roots use of public spaces. It’s a big part of what makes a city a city and not a carefully manicured suburb. It’s knowing that the unexpected could be around any corner and fully embracing that possibility.

Funny thing is, the entities that are pushing for this crackdown on panhandling know this. Visit Indy, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Ballard’s administration called for the promotion of organic urban experiences in the Velocity Action Plan released earlier this month.

They want a freer, livelier atmosphere Downtown. They want “guerrilla-style” takeovers of public spaces. They want visitors and residents to be surprised by randomness. In short, they want a true urban environment.

But here’s the inconvenient truth: To get that kind of organic, vibrant urban atmosphere, you cannot control everything. And part of not being able to control everything is that, to a certain extent, you have to accept the good with the bad. The pretty with the ugly.

The mime outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the man sitting quietly with a sign asking for money. The woman sprawled on the sidewalk with a cup and the saxophone-playing busker who sends people to the Chatterbox club to hear more jazz.

This is the messiness of an urban environment. It’s not always pretty. But it’s not supposed to be. The people who live Downtown know this. We understand it. It’s why we moved here and not to Carmel.

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