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Published August 01 2012

Panhandling proposal would apply to charitable fundraisers, too

FARGO – A proposal to further restrict panhandling in Fargo sparked a lengthy conversation at a public meeting Wednesday about how the activity ought to be handled and the potential consequences of the expanded ordinance.

Fargo Commissioner Melissa Sobolik convened the 90-minute public meeting to allow community members to weigh in on the topic before city commissioners pursued changing the ordinance.

Recently, questions arose about possible unintended consequences that might arise, such as how a revised ordinance might affect the city’s homeless population or if it would restrict charitable fundraisers, such as car washes or lemonade stands.

Fargo’s current law forbids panhandling only in the downtown business district.

Under the proposal offered by Police Chief Keith Ternes, the revised ordinance would restrict the activity – but not forbid it entirely – in places throughout Fargo, mostly near intersections or other locations that present safety hazards.

North Dakota State University students specifically voiced concerns that an expanded ordinance could prevent student groups from engaging in fundraisers that benefit local charities.

Ternes said the panhandling ordinance would apply to everyone equally, regardless of their reason of soliciting funds or services from the public.

“It does not matter what the person looks like, what the message on their sign is, the rationale behind why they are doing the solicitation – it’s really about safety,” Ternes said.

Police officers have received a growing number of complaints and concerns about panhandlers at some of Fargo’s busiest intersections, Ternes said.

Violation of the current ordinance is a criminal infraction, which carries a maximum fine of $500.

Wednesday’s public hearing quickly evolved into a broader conversation about how officials can educate the public on panhandling and dispel myths, such as that the practice is only conducted by transients or homeless people.

Fargo resident Doug Schoeszler is a longtime panhandler in the metro area. He said he can’t get a job, and he panhandles in order to pay his electric bill, a requirement that allows him to stay in assisted housing.

While Schoeszler said the proposed restrictions likely won’t impede him from panhandling, he’s concerned about the criminal consequences if he’s ever found in violation of the revised ordinance.

“If I get convicted of this, do I lose my housing? Then I’m out on the street again,” he said.

Offering input and guidance, homeless assistance professionals described how individuals with panhandling infractions on their record often have difficulty securing a lease for affordable housing.

“It’s the perception, the stigma of someone who had to go out and panhandle to make a living,” said Kim Seeb, program director of homeless health services at the Family HealthCare Center. “Panhandlers are not only homeless people. They’re often people who are trying to stay in their homes or maintain their housing.”

Community officials said they want to continue the progress of Wednesday’s conversation by educating the F-M community about the need for more services for the homeless and the poor.

“This just scratches the surface on a bigger broader issue,” Ternes said.

Laurie Baker, executive director for the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons, said there is an upside to having panhandling in the area: “It does keep the fact that poverty exists in this community in front of our faces.”

“We sometimes have a hard time seeing the poverty in our community,” Baker said. “This is one of the ways that we are forced to remember that we have truly, truly poor people here, and that they need us.”

Sobolik said the City Commission will likely consider the proposed revisions on Monday.

Proposed changes to panhandling ordinance

Fargo’s current ordinance prohibits panhandling only in the downtown business district.

A proposed revision to that law would add additional restrictions that would regulate the activity throughout Fargo’s city limits.

The restrictions include making panhandling unlawful:

Source: City of Fargo

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541

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