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Panhandling Crackdown Raises Free Speech Concerns

Asking for money from strangers is never easy.  In two Oregon cities, it will soon be even tougher.  That’s because leaders there are trying to put an end to panhandling along the side of the road.  Correspondent Chris Lehman has more.

Cindy, her boyfriend Richard, and their dog camp out near a busy highway intersection in Salem.

Meet Cindy.  She’s standing at the end of a freeway off-ramp in Salem.  In her hand is a cardboard sign that says “Broke.  Hungry.  Anything helps.”

Cindy:  “I’m out here asking for money so I can get an ID, hopefully get a job, have dinner tonight.  It’s not nothing bad.  Just trying to survive, that’s all it is.”

Cindy didn’t want her last name used. She has a felony drug conviction on her record, but she says she’s been clean for eight years.  She’s not making a lot of money this afternoon.

Cindy:  “Today it’s been a handful of change, and I think I’ve made maybe five dollars cash so far.”

Cindy says she can usually do her thing without getting hassled by the police.  But if she was in two southern Oregon towns, that might not be the case.

City officials in Roseburg recently passed a law that will make asking for money from drivers the equivalent of a traffic violation. In Medford, come January, it will be a crime.

Medford City Councilman Bob Strosser voted for the new restrictions.

Bob Strosser:  “The goal is not to prohibit panhandling but to deal with some of the safety issues that seem to be associated with it.”

Safety issues like people darting into traffic to get cash, or transients fighting over who gets to stand on which street corner.  Strosser says the law comes after years of complaints from area residents.

Bob Strosser:  “In doing something about it, we wanted to be respectful of First Amendment rights as well as respond to the people that feel like we should be doing something. Now there are some that would rather we banned it altogether.  That is not what we did."

Some people aren’t buying the safety argument.  David Fidanque is director of ACLU of Oregon.  He says the laws are probably more about civic leaders wanting to clean up their town’s image.

David Fidanque:  “It makes people uncomfortable to see homeless people in public asking for money. It reminds them that there are homeless people who don’t have money in our society, and they don’t want to have to be reminded.”

Fidanque says the ACLU is reviewing the Medford and Roseburg panhandling laws and will soon decide whether to mount a legal challenge.  The issue has yet to hit the radar of the ACLU in Washington.

Back in Salem, Cindy says her shift on the corner is almost up.  She says there are only a handful of really good asking spots in a place like Salem so she and the other homeless people take turns.

Cindy:  “If we don’t agree on something like this, then we get into fights. And that’s what we try and avoid.  Because then the people out here that help us, they won’t help us anymore.  And then the cops are called.  We can’t have that.”

Cindy says she doesn’t know what she’d do if asking for money on street corners was made a crime.  She says her checkered past makes it hard to land a job.  She’s hoping to get a few weeks of work this Christmas as a Salvation Army bell ringer. In the meantime, she says she’ll keep asking for handouts along the side of the road.

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