Lexington’s Urban County Council is considering a new ordinance that would forbid people from walking in the medians of major streets or approaching cars at intersections. That proposal comes after a February state Supreme Court decision that overturned the city’s ban on panhandling, saying it violated free speech protections.
Capitol reporter Ryland Barton tells us supporters of the proposal say it’s all about protecting pedestrians and motorists.
On a sunny spring afternoon, Grover Rawlins stands at the intersection of Maxwell and Limestone streets near the University of Kentucky campus, waving at cars and asking people for money.
“I don’t bother nobody or nothing, I just sit here on the curb,” Rawlins said. “They give me a dollar or two — I don’t get mad at them or nothing. I’m not out to hurt nobody, I just have to make a dollar.”
The intersection has become a hub for homeless people since February when the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Lexington’s ban on panhandling was unconstitutional.
The court ruled the city can’t punish people for engaging in a particular kind of speech — like asking for money or help. A trial court also overturned a similar ordinance in Louisville.
Rawlins said word about the ruling spread quickly throughout Lexington’s homeless community.
“They shot her a– down and that’s why they quit f—–g with us on the corner,” he said.
Bad for Business
According to the city, the number of people panhandling throughout Lexington has shot up since the court decision. And some are very unhappy about it.
Mamadou Savané, or “Sav” owns a West African restaurant on one side of the intersection and an ice cream parlor across the street from it.
“Especially on the corner there at the ice cream place, that’s where I get a lot of problems,” Savané said. “You know, UK having kids, so in the evening they want to come and enjoy the ice cream but these guys be panhandling all day and been drinking and then when evening comes, it’s just like…wow.”
Savané said the panhandlers are bad for business. He said they get drunk and harass customers coming in and out of his stores and then are belligerent when he tells them to move along.
“If these people would just be standing, not bothering anybody, I would go with that,” Savané said. “But you can imagine having business and having customers to come buy your product to sit down and enjoy, and there are people come and bother them.”
So now that Lexington’s outright ban on panhandling has been shot down by the state’s highest court, the Urban County Council is considering a workaround.
Rather than banning panhandling per se, they’re considering a broad ban on walking in street medians or approaching vehicles.
Urban County Councilmember Kevin Stinnette said during a presentation last week that the proposal is all about safety.
“This is not a silver bullet, this is not going to make us safe tomorrow, but it will have a huge impact on safety down the road,” Stinnette said.
Those who violate the ordinance could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $200 under the proposal.
Art Crosby with the Lexington Fair Housing Council said with the new proposal, Lexington is trying to create a law that applies to everyone — not just panhandlers.
“It seems like it’s going to be a uniform handling of it,” Crosby said. “How it actually is in effect, I don’t know.”
Besides the legislative approach, city officials said they are also trying to address the underlying problems of homelessness and unemployment that sometimes lead to panhandling.
In partnership with a non-profit, this week the city launched a new program designed to help homeless people earn money. A city-owned van drives around town picking up homeless people, and then drives them to city job sites that pay $9 an hour.
Grover Rawlins, the panhandler, said he hopes whatever solution the city comes up with brings steady work for him.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” he said. “Really, I don’t. If the city wants to help you out, then try to go to work, alright. And get us off the street, alright?”
Lexington’s van program is brand new, and Rawlins hasn’t been able to take advantage of it yet. But he said he’s interested in checking it out.