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As solutions are being sought, Hoffman said, some of the city’s current laws need to be repealed because they most likely would not be upheld if challenged in court.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