sitting off king street 2.jpg

Pedestrians cross Calhoun Street at the King Street intersection near Marion Square Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The city of Charleston has expanded its ban on people loitering, sitting and lying downtown, but police rarely write tickets.

Only seven people received a total of 12 citations since last May, Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said in a memo to City Council.

In total, officers have had only 35 interactions with people regarding the loitering ordinance, a police spokesman said Friday. 

The earlier ban, approved last April, prohibited people from sitting or lying down on sidewalks along King Street, between Line and Broad streets, and on Market Street, between King and East Bay, between 8 a.m. and 2 a.m.

The new ordinance, approved Tuesday by the City Council, extends the ban one block in either direction on roads that cross King and Market streets. 

"Being in the heart of the peninsula, these corridors offer an array of services to support residents living nearby and those coming into the peninsula to enjoy the urban core of the city, to include shopping, dining and art venues," the new ban says. 

Before police began enforcing the law last year, officers spent 30 days passing out cards outlining the new rules and flyers with available services to people sitting or lying on the sidewalks, Reynolds said.

Both the new and old ordinances say no one will be cited unless they violate the ban again after being warned by police.

"Enforcement of the ordinance, which includes education and outreach, has been effective in promoting safety by essentially eliminating people sitting or lying down on the sidewalks of King and North and South Market Streets," Reynolds' memo said. 

The city can't directly go after panhandling because the city's ban was lifted in 2014, after the American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Justice Project successfully 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 districts, such as King Street.

“It doesn’t appear that the city is enforcing the ordinance frequently, which makes us wonder if the ordinance is actually needed," said Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina. "Is it useful to criminalize an activity that can more often than not be remedied through counseling or referrals to services?”

Marie Elana Roland, who runs a "navigation center," that provides shower, laundry, medical, mental health, clothing and employment services at 529 Meeting St., said she's noticed an increase in people coming in to seek help since the ordinance went into effect. 

“There’s never a slow day here,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people are actually trying.”

The same safety concerns that led to last year's ban are why it's being expanded, Reynolds' memo said.

People sitting or lying on the sidewalks of the King and Market street corridors during heavy use "poses a threat to safe pedestrian passage," the new ordinance reads.  

If convicted, a person is fined no more than $25. A fine of $50 or less is allowed after subsequent violations.

Joe, who declined to provide his last name, sat on King Street Friday afternoon under the American Theater marquee. He held a sign that read: "Homeless and Hungry. Anything Helps!"

He said he has been in the area for about six months but hasn't heard anything about the ordinance.

No officers had come by, he said, telling him to move. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.