Charleston can’t legally ban panhandling. A 2014 court ruling found a constitutional right to ask for money on the street. But panhandling isn’t a great thing for a lot of reasons.
It irritates and intimidates pedestrians and business owners. It puts pedestrians at risk when they have to walk around people sitting on the sidewalk, using limited safe space. It means support systems for homeless and jobless people are failing.
Panhandling already is prohibited on the side of roads and in certain places such as within a few feet of an ATM. But concerns persist, particularly in popular tourist sections of downtown Charleston.
So the city is right to continue working on the issue. And its solution is a sensible one.
People will no longer be able to sit or lie on sidewalks in the main business districts of King or Market streets, both of which have experienced an uptick in panhandling in the past few years.
Sitting or lying along either of those streets is dangerous. Sidewalks are narrow and there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, so people get pushed into the street. That’s not just an annoyance or an inconvenience — it pits people against cars.
The conventional wisdom about panhandlers — that they’re lazy freeloaders who use the money to buy alcohol or drugs — isn’t generally true. Studies have shown that the average panhandler is an older, disabled, minority man who earns $25 or less per day and spends it mostly on food.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that giving out money on the street is a good idea. Other studies have shown that tourist areas like King and Market streets — where passersby tend to have cash and feel generous — attract more panhandlers.
And even when people spend the money on necessities, it’s better for their long-term safety and well-being to get professional help.
That’s the most critical part of the city’s new plan. Rather than immediately handing out citations, police officers and city officials have been directed to offer rides to shelters, contact information for aid organizations and other forms of assistance.
Research shows that homeless people say they need the most help finding a job, finding housing, paying rent or other bills and getting training or medical care. Different organizations in the area provide those services, but making a connection is key.
It’s about getting panhandlers not just off the streets, but into a stable living situation with a more reliable source of income.
To that end, the city also plans to open a daytime assistance shelter where homeless people could take showers, do laundry and get other kinds of help. Currently, area shelters operate mostly at night. That’s a critical gap, and building the new facility should be a priority.
In the meantime, city officials are right to address panhandling as humanely and as narrowly focused as possible. The new rules seem to strike a compassionate balance between protecting public safety and ensuring that homeless people get the help they need.
After all, banning panhandling isn’t the answer. Rather, the goal should be working toward a city where panhandling isn’t necessary.