How communities are regulating panhandling

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- The number of panhandlers in West Michigan is growing, spreading to new areas and getting more dangerous.

"This is my spot; I don't like it," a panhandler on 3 Mile Road and Alpine Avenue said to WZZM 13. He had just finished an argument with a panhandler on the same corner after a woman tried to offer him money. "If there's two signs here, nobody's getting money." The men argued outside of the woman's van window and she drove away as soon as she could.

Without a physical fight, don't bother calling police if this happens to you. This is legal. This is Freedom of Speech.

Panhandler James Speet takes credit for this. He and the American Civil Liberties Union won their case against the state and Grand Rapids. Now, any ban on panhandling in Michigan is unconstitutional.

Speet is now panhandling again after taking a break during the lawsuit. His settlement? $6,000. "I got my own place now; a little more on my feet." Still, it's hard for him to resist the kind of money he makes flying a sign. In his first 15 minutes back panhandling on 28th Street he made $30. We asked if he would do this the rest of his life, whether he really needs it or not. "Yeah. It's my constitutional right. Why not? I'm not breaking no law."

Now that Speet is back to his routine and the case is settled, the City of Grand Rapids is preparing a new plan. "We're back to the drawing boards," said Mayor George Heartwell. He is now researching a way to deal with the issues brought about by panhandling, including safety, without overstepping the Freedom of Speech. "We're looking at what other cities have done right now. We're studying other ordinances."

Other cities, mostly near Detroit, have crafted ordinances to limit issues they've found with panhandlers, but without directly banning panhandling. Instead, they've utilized their right to put a limit on the time of day, place, or manner in which people can ask for money.

"The real important distinction is that you can punish conduct, but you cannot punish speech," says Miriam Aukerman of the ACLU. She represented Speet, and promises to be watching Grand Rapids every step of the way, just as she's been reviewing the policies of other cities. "We recently wrote to over 80 communities, including many communities in West Michigan, to advise them that they had ordinances on the books that were unconstitutional."

Another option is to put a law on the books against fraudulent panhandling. It would be difficult for police to enforce, unless they ran into someone outright admitting to it.

RELATED:Special report on panhandling in West Michigan

But then again, it wasn't difficult forWZZM 13to find Rudy in our first Watchdog report on panhandling last July. When we asked if he felt bad about using a sign reading "homeless vet," he said, "No. Uh, yeah, in a way... you got to make money somehow; it's better than robbing people and doing drugs as far as I'm concerned."

So far in West Michigan, one city has implemented a begging law within these guidelines. "We were proactive in developing an ordinance that would help us deal with that issue before it became a problem," said Kentwood Police Chief Thomas Hillen. No one is allowed to ask for money at certain places in Kentwood; charities included. "Like, a public restroom, where a person may not be able to readily get away from somebody; in those specific areas under those specific circumstances, it wouldn't be allowed in Kentwood." Also included in this ordinance, street corners. "You cannot interfere with traffic."

Now panhandlers like Speet stick to the other sides of the Kentwood City limits; mostly in Wyoming and Grand Rapids to avoid a ticket or arrest.

Speet has also taken on a new role; legal counselor to his fellow panhandlers. "If you don't know, you're gonna get hemmed up." He passes along what he learned from his lawyer for free, as long as they get off his corners when he wants to panhandle.


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