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Keep your hands to yourself

Tulsa City Council just voted to effectively outlaw panhandling, sending mixed messages to people living in poverty

Earlier this year, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced the launch of Better Way, an initiative to help impoverished citizens who panhandle by offering them on-the-spot day-laboring opportunities to help beautify the city. Compensation includes lunch and a wage of $9 an hour, paid in cash. Modeled after a similar program in Albuquerque, Better Way was originally planned to launch in early 2018, but after an overwhelmingly positive reaction from citizens, city leaders, and nonprofits, Mayor Bynum announced that the program would begin this summer, ahead of schedule.

The question of how to best serve and help Tulsa’s homeless population is an often heated conversation between city leaders and the public. In 2014, signs that read “PLEASE DO NOT PAY THE PANHANDLERS” appeared in the Brady Arts District, prompting outcry from some and approval from others. In 2015, Pearl District residents bickered over Iron Gate soup kitchen’s proposed relocation to 3rd Street and Peoria Avenue. Some feared that an influx of homeless citizens seeking a hot meal would undermine efforts to gentrify the neighborhood. Last year, Tulsa City Council voted to increase the fines for a panhandling violation from $50 to $150.

In each instance, public opinion has been split along a dividing line of two opposing perceptions: one sees the homeless as a dangerous nuisance and economic drag, the other sees them as people who are struggling and in need of support.

After much debate and division over how to address the problem of poverty, Better Way appeared to be one solution everybody could get behind.

Then, on June 28, the City Council voted 5–3 in favor of amending a solicitation ordinance to further restrict roadside panhandling, and the debate was rekindled.

“It’s not specifically going after panhandling,” District 5 City Councilor Karen Gilbert, the amendment’s sponsor, told the Tulsa World after the proposed ordinance’s first public reading on June 21. “It’s a public safety issue. We don’t want anyone getting into the street.”

The original language of the ordinance—Title 37, Chapter 11, Section 1105, labeled “Pedestrians soliciting rides, employment, business or contributions”—read as follows.

No person shall step or stand in the roadway or median used to channel traffic for the purpose of soliciting a ride, employment, business or contributions of any kind from the occupant of any vehicle; provided however, that sworn public safety officers may solicit contributions for a charitable project officially adopted by their bargaining agents.

I.E.: “Don’t stand in the road, unless you’re a firefighter collecting money in your boot.”

The amendment to the ordinance adds new language after “used to channel traffic”:

… or place any body part in or over the roadway, or extend into or over a roadway any device, container or sign …

Meaning, it’s now illegal to accept money or gifts through a car window.

“We cannot outlaw panhandling because of our First Amendment, so anyone can stand on the street and say or ask whatever they want,” Councilor Gilbert told me after the revised ordinance was approved. “But we just want to keep both citizens and drivers safe. The complaints that I have gotten from constituents are in regard to panhandlers on the exit ramps and that is one of the most dangerous places to be. We don’t want people reaching into the street or into a car out of fear they might be hit.”

Gilbert said she received “a large number” of constituent complaints regarding panhandling on a monthly basis, leading her to sponsor the ordinance change. Though she initially told the Tulsa World otherwise, she’s since made it clear that this is specifically about going after panhandlers, though she insists it’s for their own protection.

“This is a tool for our police officers to keep panhandlers off of the street and out of harm’s way,” she said.

“There ain’t nothin’ they can do to stop us,” Tim Davis said.

On a brutally hot July afternoon, Davis sat in a camping chair at a heavily littered corner of an access road off of I-244, holding out a cup toward the road. Davis, who is of Seminole descent, came to Tulsa from Florida as a kid. He’s been panhandling in the Kendall Whittier area for three years. On a typical day, he said, he makes $10 to $12, most of which he uses for food.

“I don’t stand in the middle of the road, I don’t hold up signs, I don’t do none of that,” Davis said.

Davis described to me the world he lives in: watching his friends die, constantly ducking violence, avoiding the cops, and finding new corners to call a temporary home until the next displacement.

“There was a tent city by the river for a while, but we all got kicked out.”

I asked him what he would do if he was ticketed for accepting money from a car.

“I’d go to prison,” he said. “And you gotta remember, I’m Native American. It’s the same old shit over and over. They won’t give us restitution but they still want us to pay. It’s all about money.”

At the June 28 City Council meeting, District 4 Councilor Blake Ewing made an emphatic case that the ordinance is counterproductive, morally troubling, and bad optics for the city.

“I understand that it’s up to the officer’s discretion as to whether or not a violation has occurred to the level that merits a citation or arrest—but if we’re creating an ordinance that we don’t intend to consistently enforce, then I would ask why we’re doing that,” Ewing said. “And if we’re creating an ordinance that we intend to consistently enforce, then I would ask why this would ever rise above any of the other existing ordinances that we’ve got on the books that I think many of us would agree are much more pressing.

“Whether it’s targeted specifically at the homeless or panhandlers or not, my concern is that it communicates to those folks that the city is taking efforts to make life even more difficult on people for whom life is already quite difficult.”

District 6 Councilor Connie Dodson echoed Ewing’s concerns and added that she worried the new law would force panhandlers to approach more citizens in parking lots and on sidewalks.

But councilors Phil Lakin (District 8) and Anna America (District 7 and council chair) argued that the ordinance was about public safety first and foremost.

Only Ewing, Dodson, and District 1 Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper voted against it.

“There’s a law in place already,” said Sarah Grounds, executive director of Night Light Tulsa, an outreach program that serves Tulsa’s homeless population with food, clothing, toiletries, haircuts, and conversation every Thursday night under the I-244 bridge on M.B. Brady Street near Maybelle Avenue. “Furthering that law with different language that is going to fine people that already can’t pay their fines or jail them or whatever—it seems punitive.”

Grounds recalled an incident two years ago in which a woman who’d been placed in housing by the Mental Health Association couldn’t afford toilet paper and other basic needs.

“And she was panhandling for those products,” Grounds said, “until we came in and [helped]. I think there are a lot of good nonprofits out there who are willing to step in and help … but we have to identify the problem instead of just furthering charges on people who can’t pay the fines.”

Leaders at the Community Service Council, one of the many organizations that opposed the change to the ordinance, were also concerned.

“We are concerned that this new ordinance will encourage harassment of panhandlers,
further pushing the homeless out of public view and therefore making them even harder to help,” said Rachel Runfola, who leads the veterans division at the Community Service Council. “Let’s not forget that all too many of those in crisis who we serve are veterans.”

“Driving people from public view makes the task of finding and rendering assistance to these individuals far more difficult and expensive,” said Patrice Pratt, director of the housing and homelessness division of the Community Service Council. “In times of shrinking revenues and funding, adding an unnecessary burden to both the vulnerable and those who wish to provide services is counterproductive.”

Michael Brose, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma (MHAOK), and representatives from A Way Home for Tulsa—a coalition of 23 public and private agencies focused on fighting poverty and homelessness—met with Councilor Gilbert as well as TPD Chief Chuck Jordan ahead of the vote to express opposition to the ordinance change.

“It was pretty much a done deal that it was going to pass, but I think that it’s important for the public to know we think this will have very little real impact on the frequency of panhandling,” Brose said, citing Oklahoma City’s similar ordinance, which he said appears to have had little impact since its passage last year.

In response to the ordinance passage, Brose and A Way Home have offered to work “side by side” with the police department to help habitual violators of the ordinance avoid tickets and jail time and instead assist them with food, shelter, healthcare, and referrals to substance abuse treatment programs.

“We hope this happens, and we’re optimistic it will,” Brose said.

At the City Council meeting, Blake Ewing expressed similar concerns about the ordinance’s consequences.

“I think it’s much more likely that we will see needy people cited for this, given a ticket that they can’t pay, and then the next time they’re cited for this a warrant will be out for them, and they will end up potentially being taken to jail for having reached into the street previously,” Ewing said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me, in a city that’s already struggling to have our police officers available for more pressing issues, to tie up our law enforcement with dealing with panhandlers who reach or even step into the street.”

Gilbert disagrees.

“I would hope that anyone who receives a ticket would be a responsible citizen and make sure that their fines are paid,” she told me. “If a panhandler cannot pay his or her ticket, they may go to court and bring it to a judge.”

So far, Mayor Bynum has not publicly offered an opinion or comment on the issue, besides telling the Tulsa World after the ordinance’s first reading that it “hadn’t yet had any input from his office.” But to many in Tulsa, the message the City Council sent on June 28 was both decidedly mixed and crystal clear.

“What I feel like this communicates is that we’re coming after [those in need],” Ewing said to his fellow councilors before the vote. “Not saying that’s the intent, but I think that’s how it will be perceived, and I think we have a responsibility to communicate something different.”

For more from Joshua, read his interview with Chuck Klosterman.