I miss the good old days when panhandling in Charleston was illegal. Ever since Charleston City Council threw out its ban against panhandling last year, there has been a dramatic surge in begging around town, especially in and around major intersections.
The increase in begging has altered the experience of how it feels to travel in downtown for the worse. Although the law was changed in the furtherance of free speech, the negative consequences that have come as a result far outweigh the additional freedoms now afforded to a few. If City Council examines how the change in the law has affected drivers and the experience of driving into downtown, they will change the law back and again outlaw panhandling at intersections.
For those unfamiliar with the panhandling problem, it is an increasingly common sight for anyone who regularly travels to or from downtown using the Crosstown, James Island Connector, the Ravenel off ramps, or the intersections around MUSC. At any given intersection, there frequently will be someone waiting with a cardboard sign begging for money. Prior to March of last year, panhandling at street intersections was illegal, but the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina challenged the law as an infringement on free speech and City Council obliged them by enacting a less restrictive ordinance.
On a basic level, individuals should have the right to freely occupy any public space and exercise their right of free speech. This includes the right to ask others for money. But a city has the right to enact laws that promote the public welfare, which includes driver safety and freedom from nuisance. Courts will often use a balancing test to determine whether an ordinance that restricts any fundamental right is rationally related to a legitimate public purpose.
When a panhandler approaches or sets up on a sidewalk or other pedestrian thoroughfare, people walking by have the clear option to either stop or keep on walking. When panhandlers camp out at a busy intersection, drivers are required to stop in compliance with the prevailing traffic signal. It is this use of the red light for the “assist” in getting drivers’ attention that has negative and potentially far-reaching consequences. A driver’s attention at a busy intersection should be on the traffic light, other cars, and pedestrians that may be crossing the street. Anything or anyone that distracts from these centers of attention is a potential hazard. This is the public safety argument for prohibiting panhandling at intersections.
On a broader level, the passive allowance of panhandling at major intersections contributes to a negative perception of Charleston. Every city has homeless people, but not every city allows the homeless to camp out with impunity in the middle of the busiest intersections so they can beg from drivers during rush hour. North Charleston, for instance, has a more restrictive ordinance against panhandling. There is no reason why Charleston should maintain a less restrictive ordinance while neighboring municipalities are able to police their intersections as they deem fit.
The image of this city declines when major avenues of ingress and egress are perpetually stationed with panhandlers as unofficial “greeters.” Clearing major intersections of panhandlers does not come close to solving the problem of homelessness, but if it directs people to safer areas where they can find help, the benefits to the city are both aesthetic and practical.
There are some who may call the support of a more restrictive ordinance callous toward the poor and the homeless and an offense to their constitutional rights, but drivers should also have a right to be free from unnecessary nuisances while driving and a city should have the right to place parameters on certain types of loitering. Hopefully, City Council will see the light before the problem gets even worse.