Local Government

'Pedestrian safety' rules would clamp down on panhandling in Cedar Rapids

City Council to hold public hearing on proposed rules Tuesday

Nicole Fessler, originally from San Antonio, smiles after reading a note, written by a 14-year-old girl who gave Fessler a care package containing food and other items as she sits in the median at the western intersection of Interstate 380 and Blairs Ferry Rd. NE in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, July 6 2017. Fessler, who is homeless and living in a tent, has been in Cedar Rapids for two years. The City of Cedar Rapids is proposing rules to address pedestrian safety at intersections that would, in effect, curb panhandling. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Nicole Fessler, originally from San Antonio, smiles after reading a note, written by a 14-year-old girl who gave Fessler a care package containing food and other items as she sits in the median at the western intersection of Interstate 380 and Blairs Ferry Rd. NE in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, July 6 2017. Fessler, who is homeless and living in a tent, has been in Cedar Rapids for two years. The City of Cedar Rapids is proposing rules to address pedestrian safety at intersections that would, in effect, curb panhandling. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The afternoon sun blazed down on Nicole Fessler, 21, on Thursday, reddening her face, shoulders and chest as she sat on an upside-down 5-gallon bucket holding a cardboard sign stating, “Anything Helps; Homeless, Shelter + Food Needed.”

Fessler, who said she has been in Cedar Rapids for two years after leaving San Antonio, Texas, was in the grassy median on Blairs Ferry Road NE near Interstate 380. She collected $20 and plenty of career advice, such as “get a job,” over three hours, she said.

The busy location — one of the most popular in Cedar Rapids for panhandling — was her second choice to Collins and Center Point roads NE, where she can earn the same money in a quarter of the time, but that spot already was taken.

“What am I doing wrong? Who am I hurting?. I can understand if I was drunk or high, but I am not.”

- Nicole Fessler

Cedar Rapids panhandler

Cedar Rapids officials are considering clamping down on panhandling under a pedestrian safety ordinance. Signalized medians around the city and key intersections — including these — would be off limits for panhandlers and others, a move that’s a head scratcher for Fessler.

“What am I doing wrong? Who am I hurting?” she said. “I can understand if I was drunk or high, but I am not.”

On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and first vote on the pedestrian safety rules, which replace previous discussions about panhandling or aggressive solicitation ordinances. The meeting begins at noon at City Hall, 101 First St. SE. The matter would need three votes of approval before taking effect, potentially in late August. The main components are:

l Limit pedestrians to be in a median for no more than one traffic light cycle.

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l Forbid pedestrians from entering the road “for the purpose of entering a private vehicle or exchanging anything with an occupant of a vehicle which requires the acceptance or rejection of the items being exchanged.”

l Forbid pedestrians to “sit, walk, stand or enter” a roadway at these intersections: Collins Road and Center Point Road NE, Blairs Ferry Road NE at I-380, H Avenue NE at I-380, Wilson Avenue SW at I-380, 29th Street NE at I-380, and 32nd Street NE at I-380.

City Council member Scott Olson said panhandling would not be allowed at any of those intersections except where a sidewalk exists, such as the northeast corner of Blairs Ferry Road and I-380 or at I-380 and 42nd Street NE.

However, the language is vague as to whether panhandling still would be allowed outside the roadway, such as on a shoulder.

Maria Johnson, city spokeswoman, attempted to clarify the point by saying, “The ordinance does not prohibit pedestrians from standing or sitting on areas near the road as long as that area is accessible to pedestrians.”

A violation would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a fine of $65 to $625, or both.

TEST OF THE COURTS

Olson has been championing a panhandling ordinance for a few years, including one version where panhandlers would have to register. These pedestrian safety rules don’t address panhandling downtown, near ATMs and in parking ramps, which were part of a 2014 draft, but this is a step in the right direction, he said.

“The ordinance is necessary. I don’t think it is going to unfairly target homeless people. A lot of the homeless people we see on the 380 offramps, which are very popular, are not homeless.”

- Mike Jennings

CR Careavan

In recent years, courts have struck down broad panhandling bans as a violation of free speech and unconstitutional, Olson said he was told by City Attorney Jim Flitz. The version being proposed Tuesday is narrow, focuses on safety rather than panhandling, is backed up by data and is likely to withstand legal challenges, Olson said.

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“It is a pedestrian safety ordinance that addresses some of the panhandling issues, but it’s not a panhandling ordinance,” Olson said. “We feel confident this will stand the test of the courts and solve some of the intersections where we’ve seen problems.”

Olson said panhandling truly is a safety issue.

PANHANDLING CALLS

Police data shows panhandling calls for service meeting criteria for a hazardous situation rose from 27 and 21 in 2012 and 2013, respectively, to 48, 43 and 44 in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively. Overall, panhandling calls rose each year from 109 in 2012 to 178 in 2016.

Based on calls, Blairs Ferry Road NE at I-380 has the most hazardous situations involving panhandling — at least 46 from 2008 to March 2017, according to police data. The intersections of Collins and Center Point roads NE, near I-380, had the second-highest cluster of calls, with at least 15 calls in that time frame, according to the data.

Last month, a pedestrian, police were told, was panhandling at the median and was injured crossing the road at Collins Road and Northland Avenue NE. That intersection is not specifically addressed in the ordinance, but panhandling would be prohibited there under the provision on medians, Olson said.

Olson said signs would be erected at those locations. The city estimates a cost of $1,250 for 62 signs, which Olson has volunteered to pay for.

Mike Jennings, of CR Careavan, a support organization for the homeless, was involved in crafting the ordinance.

“The ordinance is necessary,” Jennings said. “I don’t think it is going to unfairly target homeless people. A lot of the homeless people we see on the 380 offramps, which are very popular, are not homeless.”

'TRYING TO SURVIVE'

Back on Blairs Ferry Road NE, panhandlers such as Fessler say they are just trying to get by and an ordinance will make it harder. Fessler tries to get enough for food, a $42 hotel room and a shower with a backup plan of tenting at a site not far away, she said.

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Fessler said she has a 3-year-old daughter with an autoimmune disease. Time that Fessler has spent at hospitals with her child has caused her to lose jobs and soured job prospects, so she panhandles to get money, she said.

Paul Morton, 47, who lost his leg seven years ago to a blood clot and said he can’t work, sat against a concrete barrier in the shoulder of the northbound I-380 off-ramp using a sign to ask for money.

“I feel like we’re being targeted,” said Morton, who has been homeless for a year.

“I’m not out here aggressively approaching citizens. I don’t approach cars. I’m out here trying to survive.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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