The Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to direct city staff to explore legal avenues of which it could prohibit panhandling on city medians as the activity distracts drivers, posing a “public safety threat.”
In a memo to the council and Mayor Robert Garcia, Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price—the author of the item—stated that the concern goes beyond mere solicitation as the presence of pedestrians on medians, especially in high-traffic intersections, poses a dangerous situation for themselves and for drivers. The item was co-sponsored by Councilman Daryl Supernaw and Roberto Uranga.
“It’s designed to address the concerns that we’ve seen at these particular traffic intersections and many other traffic intersections,” Price said. “I think minimizing the chaos and the noise around those intersections is a very important thing for us as a community to focus on.”
Price’s district includes one of the most notorious locations of median panhandling, the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and 2nd Street, where it's not uncommon to see at least one person holding a sign asking for help from passing motorists.
The councilwoman’s request asks the city manager and the city attorney to explore legal ways to try and reign in this activity. It was met with mostly support from the small crowd that made it to city hall Tuesday night, the same night that Los Angeles County voters could potentially raise sales taxes countywide to combat the growing homelessness issue.
“We can’t drive and text,” said Gary Morrison, president of the Alamitos Heights Improvement Association. “We can’t drive and talk on our cell phones unless we’re hands free, people on the medians are distractions. It puts drivers at risk, it puts pedestrians at risk.”
Lucy Johnson, a resident of the Fifth District, echoed the concerns as multiple others before her that a combination of people, pets and automobiles made for a recipe for potential disaster.
“I’m concerned about the dogs as well, but even more so I’ve seen people on the medians who bend over to pick up stuff that’s been tossed down into the streets, whether it’s coins or somebody tried to hand them a dollar bill or whatever before they drove off,” Johnson said. “They’re actually getting into the street as traffic is coming through.”
Opposition to the idea was limited to one man, former city employee and marijuana industry lawyer, Stefan Borst Censullo, who argued that the item was not so much aimed at public safety as it was prohibiting panhandling in upper-class districts as similar efforts were not made when students use medians to advertise car washes.
“Rather this is an attempt by the cosponsors to, at best, remove poor people out of sight and out of mind, and at worst, it represents a continuing trend by the city to criminalize poverty,” Borst-Censullo said.
Last year the council initiated an effort to explore the banning of oversized vehicles parked on city streets, something that City Attorney Charles Parkin warned could not be used as a remedy to cure homelessness as it would face legal challenges.
Borst-Censullo pointed to an established case law that could provide legal hurdles, or lawsuits, if the city proceeds with a ban, as reason to reconsider the item’s objective.
The case originated in 2015 when a pastor in Gilbert, Arizona sued that his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated when the city banned him from posting signs directing people to his services. The ruling was based on “content based” discrimination and since civil liberty organizations have used the ruling to successfully defend panhandling bans.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the city of Cleveland last month on the grounds that its panhandling ban, which prohibited people from “communicating information about their poverty,” was unconstitutional. Similar bans were struck down in courts in Kentucky, Utah, Michigan and California in recent years.
However, cities continue to institute various panhandling bans, including in Milwaukee where city leaders there instituted a ban in October that prohibits people from loitering on medians less than five feet wide or on any median considered a safety hazard for pedestrians.
In January, Colorado Springs took a similar action against pedestrians walking or standing on narrow street medians (four feet or less) and on streets with speed limits over 30 miles per hour.
This month, Portland, Oregon—of course—took a more progressive stance on the issue and instead of instituting an outright ban, is now exploring a pilot program that would offer day jobs to panhandlers, according to the Portland Press Herald.
When the report comes back it will include some amendments made Tuesday night including traffic collision data, legal analysis of the issue, how other cities approached it and traffic volume data.
Before the council unanimously approved the item to move forward, Price closed with an insistence that the aim was public safety.
“I don’t want Girl Scout cookies being sold on the medians, I don’t want car washes being solicited from the medians,” Price said. “It’s just a dangerous traffic hazard and people get confused. You have to be on your game when you’re driving and if there’s a distraction, someone a foot or two away from your car, it can be distracting regardless of what they’re doing.”