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A woman panhandles in front of a business at 496 King Street on Thursday April 12, 2018. Leroy Burnell/Staff

The city of Charleston has a new strategy to crack down on panhandling in the busy commercial districts along King and Market streets.

City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday that bans sitting or lying down on sidewalks along King Street from Line to Broad, and on Market from King to East Bay between 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. 

While the rule applies to anyone resting on the curb, it's aimed at those who routinely sit and stay in the same spots, often to ask passersby for money. It's a trend that business owners in the area have been complaining about for months.

Some of them said the behavior has recently become more "aggressive," which they said scares off customers and leads to litter, theft and other problems. 

The city can't directly go after panhandling because its ban was lifted in 2014 after the American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Justice Project challenged it as an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

In 2015, the city passed an ordinance restricting panhandling along roads, citing safety concerns. Since then, the activity has migrated to more pedestrian commercial districts such as King Street. 

The city's new measure won't infringe on anyone's rights, but will help keep foot traffic flowing on the narrow sidewalks, said Steve Ruemelin, a city attorney who mostly handles legal matters in the police department. 

"The city has looked at it as not only a public safety issue, but it also goes to the economic viability of the area," he said.

At the same time, he said the city realizes most people resting on the sidewalks are homeless, so the first priority will be to connect them with local resources that can help improve their circumstances.

The city also is moving forward with plans to open a walk-in facility in the next few months on Meeting Street, where homeless people can go during the day to take showers, do laundry, and find services.

That seems to be the right approach, according to Shaundra Young Scott, ACLU South Carolina's executive director. 

"If they want to put an ordinance in place, there should be an equal amount of effort in helping individuals to not be in that position in the first place," she said.

The new rule includes a number of exceptions for people participating in a specific event, or sitting or standing in line in front of a business. 

There will be a warning-only period until May 10. After that, people will only be cited if they refuse to move when asked by authorities. First offenses could result in a $25 fine, then $50 on second offenses. 

"I'd imagine if you didn't have money to pay it, the court might offer you a community service-type alternative," Ruemelin said.

The police department is also required to report to City Council the effectiveness of the ordinance after one year, and every two years after that.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.