Street panhandlers may have to hit road

City Council on Tuesday will vote on a new ordinance that would prohibit anything being passed to or from a person in a vehicle while it is in a traffic lane. This happens often in traffic that is stopped on the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

Sweat drips down a woman’s face and arms as she holds a rumpled cardboard sign in the searing afternoon heat, begging for money from drivers at a stoplight on the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

A driver opens his window and beckons the woman, who doesn’t want to give her name, to his car. He reaches out and drops a handful of change in her hand.

The woman said she’s just doing what she has to do to get by. A lot of people think she’s trying to earn a quick buck without working for it, she said. “But it’s not easy.”

And it will get even more difficult if a proposed city ordinance passes that would prohibit her from taking money from drivers in traffic lanes.

Roadside spots are some of the most lucrative places to panhandle because hundreds of cars pass by every hour, especially during rush hour, panhandlers say. But the days of being able to walk up to a vehicle and accept some change or a few dollars will come to end soon in Charleston if City Council on Tuesday gives initial approval to an ordinance the group’s Public Safety Committee passed Monday.

The ordinance would prohibit anyone — including panhandlers, people collecting money for charities or those handing out religious fliers or selling newspapers — from passing items to or from the occupant of a vehicle on a roadway in a traffic lane. So people making a donation, and those accepting it, both would be violating the ordinance, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,092 fine.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said the ordinance is “the city’s solution to our problems with panhandling.”

People still can beg for money, she said, but the transactions would have to happen off the roadway in a place such as a parking lot. “There have been many, many public complaints about this,” she said.

The city had a longtime panhandling ban in place, but the American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Justice Project challenged it last year as an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

The ban was lifted in March 2014 and soon after, nearly every gateway to the city became staffed by someone with a cardboard sign asking for a handout.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he proposed the ordinance because any time a pedestrian ventures into a traffic lane, it creates a public safety issue.

Someone could be hit. Or a car could stop abruptly so the driver could hand some money out the window, and then get hit from behind, he said. “Our roadways are becoming areas of business,” he said. And it’s getting dangerous.

People initially stayed on the shoulders of the roads, he said. “Then they moved to the divider. Now they’re standing it traffic.”

He’s not trying to violate anybody’s right to free speech, he said. “But I have to balance First Amendment rights with safety.”

He also said the ordinance is based on one passed in Manchester, N.H. The ACLU in that area was on board with the plan, he said.

Panhandlers taking a break under a ramp of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge at the entrance to the city said they were appalled by the plan.

A woman who didn’t want to give her name said she had to panhandle for now, but she was working on ways to improve her situation. And everybody she knows is very considerate of the drivers, she said. “They harass us” by yelling things at panhandlers. “We don’t harass them.”

The ordinance “probably will pass constitutional muster,” said Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “But the real question is what is the real purpose” of the ordinance?

If it’s really about public safety, the ordinance probably will be effective, she said. It likely won’t be as effective if the real reason for it is because “we don’t want people driving into Charleston to see poor people.”

People who have no other way to support themselves are going to find another place to panhandle, she said. “They’re not going to go away.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich