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Thursday, July 12, 2012 06:40 pm

Panhandling defended

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Karen Denene Otterson and Don Norton hold signs typical of those used by panhandlers. On July 2, the pair spoke before the Springfield City Council in favor of repealing the city’s downtown panhandling ban.

Don Norton of Springfield has been homeless before, and he expects to be so again. Norton and his partner, Karen Denene Otterson, live with a friend who is planning to get married, meaning their welcome will wear out soon.

“Unless I can find substantial support to get into another home or an apartment, I may be living out in a tent again,” Norton said. “Because of this and some things in my past, it’s been very difficult for me to obtain full-time or even part-time work. This is the same for all homeless people who truly do want to work.”

Norton addressed the Springfield City Council last week, asking for a repeal of the city’s ban on panhandling. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case which ruled panhandling is protected under the First Amendment, though it can be restricted to certain times and places.

The ordinance, found in Chapter 131, section 6 of the city code, defines panhandling as taking place “upon any street, public way, public place, or park in the city.” It says panhandling is illegal in the downtown historic district, but Norton says he is often approached by police while panhandling even outside that area.

The ordinance does not ban passive panhandling, in which the panhandler has a sign but doesn’t vocally ask for money.

Norton said he panhandles for money when he’s homeless, using his gains to pay for a cheap motel room during harsh weather. Though Springfield has a handful of homeless shelters, Norton says they rarely have enough beds to satisfy demand.

“Play homeless for one night,” he said, addressing the council and the audience. “Go down and stand in front of Helping Hands [homeless shelter] at 4 o’clock in the afternoon along with 25 or 30 other people in hopes that you’ll win a lottery ticket...”

A 2010 count by the Heartland Continuum of Care found 287 people who were homeless in Springfield, including 66 children. The count found about 700 beds in shelters, though only about 95 were available on an emergency basis for homeless people. Many of the beds are reserved for people just released from prison, HIV and AIDS patients, pregnant women or people in substance abuse treatment programs.

Norton says the ideal solution would be establishing a year-round shelter like the Springfield Overflow Shelter, which operates from November through March, providing about 75 extra beds when other shelters are full.

Ward 1 alderman Frank Edwards suggested forming a council subcommittee to meet with homeless interests and discuss solutions. Ward 3 Alderman Doris Turner and Ward 4 Alderman Frank Lesko said they would volunteer for the subcommittee. Ward 5 Alderman Sam Cahnman pointed out the city’s prior efforts to combat homelessness, including the Round Up To End Homelessness program, in which City Water, Light and Power customers can round their utility bills up to the nearest dollar, with the extra money going to support efforts like the overflow shelter.

Turner said anyone can become homeless under the wrong circumstances.

“I know that oftentimes people get so caught up in where they are and how they got there, they lose sight that it can be one insignificant instance that can cause you to be homeless,” Turner said. “Most of us are one paycheck away from being homeless, and an illness or something that can be no cause of your own can cause you to be there.”

Here is a link to the ordinance.

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