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Dayton, Ohio, Takes An Innovative Approach To Deal With Panhandlers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cities around the country have struggled for years to figure out a way to address panhandling. A 2015 Supreme Court ruling, based largely on free speech, forced American cities to take many of their anti-panhandling laws off the books. Since then, some city leaders have found creative ways to curb the practice. April Laissle from member station WYSO gives us an inside look at what the city of Dayton is trying out.

APRIL LAISSLE, BYLINE: It's a bright, muggy morning, and I'm standing on a narrow median near the ramp to I-75, one of Dayton's major highways, watching the traffic lights change. Under the city's new pedestrian safety ordinance, I'm only allowed to stand here for the length of two red lights before crossing. The law also bars pedestrians from coming too close to cars along several major highways. Officials say the new law is meant to cut down on traffic accidents, but at a city council meeting after its passage, some residents weren't buying it.

JOSHUA PIETRI: I don't think they actually really care about the people's safety. I think they just want rich people to be able to go downtown without having to see homeless people.

LAISSLE: That's Joshua Pietri (ph), an activist and city resident. His skepticism isn't surprising given Dayton's history. Just a few years ago, Dayton was one of many American cities that strictly limited panhandling. The city restricted it to daylight hours and required panhandlers to register with the police department. Then in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled restrictions like these violated free speech rights, according to Ken Paulson, a lawyer and president of the nonpartisan First Amendment Center.

KEN PAULSON: The government can't limit what one citizen says to another. It is that simple. And government's made the mistake of trying to say you can't solicit. You can't panhandle. And government has no business doing that.

LAISSLE: So panhandling laws across the country were tossed out, and some business leaders weren't happy. Sandy Gudorf heads the Downtown Dayton Partnership. Gudorf worries that panhandlers intimidate some visitors and keep others away.

SANDY GUDORF: We continue to bring more businesses downtown. More people are living downtown, but we still battle some of the perceptions that downtown is not safe.

LAISSLE: Gudorf says they started to get more complaints after Dayton's laws changed.

GUDORF: The laws that were in place, we felt, were very effective, but, you know, they were shown to be unconstitutional, so we needed to look at other alternatives.

LAISSLE: They began by looking at how other cities were addressing the issue. Some, including Portland, Maine, have launched programs matching panhandlers with employers. Several have converted old parking meters into charity deposit stations with varying levels of success. Ken Paulson with the First Amendment Center says many cities have found legal ways to work around the ruling. Some, like Sacramento and Orlando, have banned aggressive panhandling or not taking no for an answer. Paulson says those laws are likely to withstand potential court challenges because they address conduct, not speech.

PAULSON: Just as somebody calling your home is free speech, if they call you 30 times, that's harassment.

LAISSLE: Others, like Dayton, are passing laws officials say are meant to boost pedestrian safety but that effectively restrict panhandling. Lawmakers are careful not to use that word in the text of the law though.

PAULSON: Mentioning panhandling would be the kiss of death for any legislation. That's the key to keeping it constitutional. If you frame it entirely as a traffic safety issue, it is likely to be upheld.

LAISSLE: The strategy is becoming increasingly popular. Local governments in Madison, Wis., Pima County, Ariz., Springfield, Mo., and Wichita have all passed similar laws. For NPR News, I'm April Laissle.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAUTIFUL KILLING MACHINE'S "MARTYRS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.