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Charleston city leaders consider putting limits on panhandling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Charleston leaders are eyeing a crackdown on panhandling in the city.

City Attorney Paul Ellis said he is working on an ordinance that would prohibit panhandlers from soliciting money in an "aggressive" fashion but said the particulars are still being worked out. One issue under consideration is whether to bar begging near ATMs. 

"I haven't come up with the exact distance yet, but we will put a specific distance in the ordinance," Ellis said. "It won't say 'close proximity.' "

Ellis is working with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the American Civil Liberties Union to craft the ordinance, he said. He also has sought input from jurisdictions with similar laws.

The ordinance also will prohibit panhandlers from blocking traffic and soliciting within a specific distance of a liquor store, public restrooms, bus stops or playgrounds, he said.

"The ordinance wouldn't preclude people from asking for money, but it would keep them from doing it in an aggressive manner or in certain venues," Ellis said.

He hopes to have a draft prepared within a month. 

Downtown business owners said panhandling is a real problem and that it scares away customers.

Ann Saville, owner of two downtown businesses, said the problem is worse now than in the past.

"It seems to be getting worse year by year," she said. "Now they're coming into the store."

Saville owns Taylor Books on Capitol Street and Charleston Brewing Co. on Quarrier Street.

"It's not good," she said. "We're hoping to attract more tourists to the city, and it's a deterrent when people know they could be accosted."

She acknowledges the problem doesn't have an easy solution.

"I don't know what we can do about it, and that's the problem," she said. "And the solution is just so difficult."

At least one city councilman is ready to support a crackdown on panhandling.

Councilman Robert Sheets, a Democrat representing a portion of the East End and downtown, said he wants to see law enforcement be able to take a more proactive approach to dealing with panhandling. 

He's heard from people who have been frightened by aggressive panhandlers.

"And sometimes they don't take no for an answer and they get right up in people's faces," Sheets said.

City leaders must be careful the ordinance doesn't violate anyone's civil rights, Police Chief Brent Webster said. 

"There's no law against people asking for money while they're on public property," he said. "It may make people uncomfortable - it makes me uncomfortable - but it's not against the law."

He said the only time officers can directly address panhandling on public property is when the individual is being aggressive or if they are intoxicated. Panhandlers also cannot block traffic.

"We try to get our officers to understand what's asking for money peacefully and what is aggressive panhandling," Webster said. "But when it becomes aggressive, it becomes another offense." 

Panhandlers cannot go into private businesses to ask for money, and they cannot touch an individual, he said. 

"If they're threatening people in any way or just being disorderly, we can write them a citation or actually remove them from the scene or arrest them," Webster said.

Sheets said he understands that officers walk a fine line.

He recalled a man who used to ask for money several years ago outside of a Quarrier Street bank. The man, who was severely disabled, would set out a tin cup for money, Sheets said.

"That's passive panhandling," he said. "I want people to feel safe downtown." 

Webster said complaints actually seem to be down this year compared to years past. But that lower figure could be attributed to a cooler spring. As the weather continues to warm, more people will be out and about downtown, Webster said. That usually means more soliciting.

South Charleston also hears complaints about begging, but Police Chief Brad Rinehart said the problem isn't as prominent as it is in Charleston.

When panhandling does occur, it's usually in the shopping centers around Corridor G.

Because those centers are private property, police officers can force the panhandlers to leave.

"And the property owners there have made it clear that they don't want them there," Rinehart said.

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.

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