WINCHESTER — City officials are seeking to repeal a half-dozen local ordinances that were designed to crack down on panhandling because they may be unconstitutional or unenforceable.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of homelessness issues,” City Manager Dan Hoffman told Winchester’s Public Health and Safety Committee at a special meeting on Wednesday evening. “Law enforcement can sometimes be a blunt instrument and is not appropriate to address homelessness as a whole.”

In June 2019, City Council unanimously approved an ordinance making it a crime for people to solicit money along city streets. Winchester Police Chief John Piper, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, proposed that ordinance, telling council at the time that people who request contributions from or distribute materials to passing motorists impede traffic flows and create safety hazards.

Hoffman said the city will be looking for other ways to address homelessness in Winchester, but the focus will be more on how services offered to the local homeless population by the Congregational Community Action Project (CCAP), Winchester Rescue Mission, the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS) program and other community organizations can be streamlined and better coordinated.

“We have been looking at other cities to see what they have done,” City Attorney Melisa G. Michelsen told the committee. “It’s a difficult shared problem.”

As solutions are being sought, Hoffman said, some of the city’s current laws need to be repealed because they most likely would not be upheld if challenged in court. Those ordinances are:

Section 14-115 (Interference with Traffic Prohibited) — “We are restricting someone’s right to public property and obviously the courts take that very seriously,” Hoffman said about the need to repeal the law. “We will be looking at other ways to try to make sure that folks who intend to panhandle are not putting themselves in an unsafe situation.”

Section 16-6.2 (Begging/Panhandling) — “Panhandling has been regarded as free speech and, as such, has a variety of protections to it,” Hoffman said.

Section 16-10 (Public Profanity and Drunkeness) — “It is still illegal to be drunk in public,” Hoffman said. “This is really focused on the public profanity portion of the ordinance. Profanity is [free] speech.”

Sections 16-30 (Loitering Prohibited) and 16-31 (Loitering in a Public Place with Intent to Engage in Unlawful Drug Transaction) — “They’re problematic, to say the least,” Hoffman said about the city’s current loitering laws, because they have the potential of being improperly enforced to target certain individuals or groups.

Section 24-1 (Solicitation of Alms) — “It’s basically the same as the panhandling ordinance,” Hoffman said.

“These make sense,” Public Health and Safety Committee Chairwoman Kim Herbstritt said, but if the ordinances are repealed, she wanted to know how businesses could address panhandling that takes place in front of their doors and potentially deters customers.

“It will definitely require some very creative solutions,” Hoffman said. “Put very broadly, there’s very little we can do because panhandling is considered [free] speech.”

Michelson said businesses in other jurisdictions have placed landscaping in front of their stores to keep panhandlers at a distance. Herbstritt said she sees the logic in that approach, but also worries that shrubs and bushes would create hiding places for criminals.

Hoffman said dropping the ordinances would only be the first step in protecting the rights of all Winchester residents, including the homeless, and a great deal of work remains to be done. However, the existing laws should be repealed now to ensure the constitutional rights of homeless individuals are not violated.

The committee forwarded Hoffman’s proposals to the full City Council with a recommendation of approval. Council is expected to discuss the issue during its work session on Tuesday night.

Attending Wednesday evening’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting in Rouss City Hall were Chairwoman Kim Herbstritt and member Evan Clark. Member Les Veach was absent.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

(8) comments

ShackMaster

The previous "permanent" City Manager was allowed to leave town one step ahead of the sheriff after all the mayhem she caused. Will Mr. Hoffman need to leave town in the middle of the night to escape all the panhandlers whom he seems to want to take control of the City's streets?

Tomahawk1234

Wow! Having laws to keep everyone safer is now an infringement on the rights of the homeless? Knocking on my car window and standing in traffic is okay? “Arrest our way out of homelessness?” I seriously doubt the Winchester P.D. prides itself on arresting homeless people. They have a job to do and they do it well. What are these officials thinking?

Phantom 409

Personally I feel threatened when someone comes up to my vehicle knocking on my window while at a stop light. If panhandling is going to be allowed in Winchester then its time to avoid going into Winchester for shopping, gong out to eat or any other reason. Ill spend my money in a safer locality.

Tomasacio

So apparently this is going to allow a panhandler of dubious intent to approach and close on me and my family, while at the same time taking away my ability to provide protection (enforcing a zero tolerance no carry law on it's tax paying citizens) against strong armed robbery. And don't tell me they mean no harm because no one can intuit intent.

Doc Samson

Winchester can't turn into an East Coast San Francisco fast enough, apparently...

Robina5

It’s an interesting problem. Mr. Hoffman is equating the rights of legitimate property owners and business people, who are paying the taxes which run the city, with those of the homeless who are loitering and panhandling, and who by definition pay no taxes; they are currently living thanks to a number of city charities who also receive donations from taxpaying residents. It would be good to know just what percentage of the city’s homeless are in fact panhandling. Many are already being taken care of by charities. I was surprised not to see the Salvation Army listed among the charities.

While I fully concur that the city needs to address the issue much more fully during these difficult pandemic times, I also believe that knocking out two of the ordinances: both panhandling and loitering, is excessive. The city also has the obligation of protecting its’ residents against such behaviors, not just cite “freedom of speech”. It’s not their speech we are objecting to, it’s their actions.

I would recommend that city council research possible solutions much more thoroughly before making any final decision concerning voiding all relevant city ordinances.

Steve Cunningham

The problem with the article and your response is that most of the panhandlers are not our area's homeless, but those who are just looking to make quick and easy money. What Dan Huffman does not understand is panhandling and homelessness is not one in the same. I certainly hope that the new city manager will finally address homelessness as that as been something that the City of Winchester has long pushed along to area non-profits to deal with so that the city leaders would not have to.

Panhandling is a safety issue, regardless of the culprit and it should not be allowed.

Blondie

I have been to Martin's at Sunnyside on three separate occasions. I think they may actually be in the county, I'm not sure. However, there is a couple with two children standing on the back of the McDonald's parking lot begging for money. I was in line at McDonald's when they got in a relatively new vehicle parked in the lot and pulled off.

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