CEDAR RAPIDS — Men with weathered faces and signs asking for money are hard to ignore when they camp next to Interstate 380 ramps in the city.
They provoke a thought of one kind or another for most who drive by.
The City Council later this month will take up a proposed city ordinance on “aggressive solicitation,” an ordinance that has been under city review for nearly two years, in part, because City Council members aren’t sure what they see when they see panhandlers next to the highway ramps, at busy city intersections or on downtown streets.
Council member Scott Olson on Thursday said he polled other council members at Mayor Ron Corbett’s request and found that most wanted to discuss the proposed ordinance and bring it to a vote.
Olson supports the ordinance, Corbett does not.
Olson said he supports the new law because the Police Department has proposed it and helped write it and the council’s Public Safety Committee also agreed that it should come in front of the full council.
Olson said he has fielded plenty of complaints from the public about panhandling, and he said he has been asked himself for money on several occasions in downtown Cedar Rapids. One particular woman asks him for bus fare, and he said he now encourages her to walk a few blocks to the Ecumenical Community Center, 601 Second Ave. SE, which provides free bus passes. Olson founded the center some years ago,
“People are concerned about panhandlers at key corners along the interstate and downtown, and they are concerned that it sends the wrong message about our city,” he said.
He said Las Vegas and Chicago, for instance, have their panhandlers, but he said the local police make an effort to contain the practice and redirect people to shelters or other services.
“Let’s at least have a discussion on this,” Olson said.
He said local news stories from a year or two ago tracked a Cedar Rapids panhandler and found that he had come into the city and set up along the interstate ramps as if it was a job.
“My calls have been from people who have gone by the intersections and say, ‘Hey, this is not want we want to see in Cedar Rapids,’” he said. “It doesn’t send the right message. And the message we want to send is that if you are in need there are agencies to help you. We don’t want you to stand on corners.”
Corbett this week said he invariably finds himself wondering about a panhandler’s circumstances when he sees one.
“We need to spend more time thinking about the mental health, homelessness and substance abuse that can put a person in this position, not running beggars and outcasts out of town,” Corbett said.
He said he also worried about “unintended consequences” of the proposed panhandler ordinance, which might impact school children who go door to door raising money for youth causes, he said.
Police Capt. Steve O’Konek, said Thursday that the Police Department continues to feel strongly that an ordinance that addresses aggressive solicitation is needed in the city.
O’Konek said panhandlers stepping into traffic to accept money creates a public safety problem.
“It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets run over,” he said.
He said the department also gets reports about some panhandlers who won’t take “No” for an answer.
“It makes people feel like they’re going to be robbed or be a victim of crime,” O’Konek said.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit any panhandling in an aggressive manner; on buses or at bus stops or bus depot or within 50 feet of an ATM or financial institution; on private property if the owner has asked not be solicited; and at controlled intersections, median strips, controlled access highways or roadway shoulders.
Fundraising efforts like the Fire Department’s annual effort at city intersections would be allowed to continue by permit.
O’Konek said the new ordinance will give police officers a greater ability to “help the people who may be downtrodden” and steer them to community services and shelters. Now, officers can’t do much, he said.