After a recent uptick in residents’ complaints, Kirkwood officials on Thursday talked about ways to discourage panhandling.
Mayor Tim Griffin and the City Council said they will investigate some suggestions and will plan an informational campaign to let residents know that the best way to discourage panhandlers is to avoid giving them money.
“We’ve all gotten (recent) calls and emails on panhandlers in parts of Kirkwood — though this is a problem not limited to Kirkwood,” Griffin said.
“People ask us why we allow them and tell us that they need to get out. But people have rights, and we explain why we can’t do that.”
City Attorney John Hessel told Griffin and the council that many cities have been sued over the regulation of panhandling. He noted that St. Louis County recently was sued over its enforcement of panhandling regulations. The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit on behalf of a homeless man.
“Holding a sign saying ‘I need money — I’m hungry’ is a form of First Amendment (protected) speech, and a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case emphasizes that cities can’t regulate sign content,” he said.
“We can’t ban someone from being on a sidewalk. However, cities can regulate traffic interference, and we have regulations that say that people shouldn’t be on medians or walking into the street to collect money. My advice is that we stick with those.”
Hessel said it’s a challenge for cities to find a practical way to deal with panhandlers – and an elaborate ordinance could be challenged.
“The best way to remove panhandlers is to ignore them so that they move on,” he said.
Police Chief Brian Murphy said officers regularly encourage panhandlers to move off road medians for safety reasons, but many individuals return to the sites. He said some panhandlers have fought with police “and we don’t want anyone hurt over this.”
Hessel said arresting panhandlers often doesn’t work for long, since those individuals can’t be held for an extended period, “and then the person is back to the same spot.”
He added that, though fines are small, some people tell judges they can’t afford to pay but then don’t show up to participate in a work program in lieu of a fine, warrants are issued for which the offender fails to appear in court, and “it’s just a vicious cycle – it’s a no-win situation and frustrating, but we can’t just run panhandlers out of town.”
Councilman Wallace Ward suggested the city install signage on road rights of way to discourage panhandlers.
“We need a marketing plan (among residents), a campaign to discourage donations to dry up revenue for panhandlers, and then those folks will go away,” he said.
Ward also suggested installing physical obstacles on medians to prevent anyone standing on them, adding “it’s dangerous to wait on doing something when this problem has the potential to grow.”
Councilwoman Ellen Edman added that “I wish we could find a way to communicate that panhandlers aren’t ruining Kirkwood – this is not Kirkwood’s biggest problem.”
“We shouldn’t put our police officers in danger, struggling near traffic, to move people we don’t like,” she said.
Also Thursday night, Griffin and the council voted 6-1, with Councilman Mark Zimmer opposed, to give first readings to legislation that would allow tattoo studios to operate as special uses in the city’s downtown business district, as well as for a special-use permit to allow such a studio on the second floor of 108 North Kirkwood Road.
A final vote on both is set for Oct. 17.
City Attorney John Hessel has said tattoo studios now are not allowed anywhere in Kirkwood.