NEW PANHANDLING LAW IS MAKING BIG CHANGE

2005-08-01T00:00:00Z NEW PANHANDLING LAW IS MAKING BIG CHANGEAubre Andrus Wisconsin State Journal madison.com
August 01, 2005 12:00 am  • 

It's been only a month since Madison strengthened its panhandling ordinance -- requiring panhandlers to stay farther from businesses, sidewalk cafes and intersections throughout the entire city -- but observers already say a safer and quieter State Street has emerged.

Charlie Rogers, who works at the State Street hat shop Sacred Feather, said the difference is "night and day."

"Come down and see the new State Street," Rogers said, adding that instead of seeing 10 panhandlers a day outside of his store, he'll see four. "The guys have worked out a schedule so they all take turns."

Before the law was changed, panhandlers weren't allowed on sidewalks between the buildings and the light poles. Now they must be more than 20 feet from business entrances, sidewalk cafes and intersections and at least 12 feet from non-residential buildings.

Since the ordinance was changed, panhandlers don't seem to be using even the areas on State Street where they are allowed, said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who introduced the amendment in April. "It's really as if panhandling has gone away overnight Downtown even though the law specifically does not do that."

Madison Police Department officers have informed known panhandlers of where they can legally stand, but a lot of information has been passed on between panhandlers by word of mouth, according to Kip Kellogg, State Street neighborhood officer for Madison Police Department.

"It's always been a case of more education than enforcement," Kellogg said.

Panhandlers are allowed one warning but will receive a ticket for about $150 if caught in an illegal location. The second offense within 12 months is a citation for almost $300.

Verveer said crimes associated with panhandling have reduced "dramatically," especially the number of arrests and people taken to the alcohol detoxification center.

"The anecdotal belief that most of the panhandlers are chronic alcoholics has proven to be true," Verveer said. "When the source of money and the source of alcohol dries up, they go elsewhere or they don't feed their addiction as much."

Kellogg agreed, noting that officers who work on State Street in the afternoon have seen fewer "detox runs."

"The cycle has been broken," said Kellogg, adding that Madison Police plan to conduct a study at the end of September to compare the number of calls to detoxification centers received in July, August and September to the numbers generated during the same period last year.

Kellogg is not aware of any arrests that have been made for violations of the ordinance. Within the past month, he has issued two tickets for menacing panhandling.

"It's only been 3 1/2 weeks, so we have to see what the long-term impact is, but the short term is certainly very nice," Kellogg said.

In the past, stores have received complaints from customers who felt threatened or irritated by panhandlers at store entrances.

Sports World, 510 State St., has a bench in front of the store where many panhandlers would sit, said Emma Walker, an employee.

"It's been a big improvement," Walker said of the amendment. "I think it's actually gone down significantly on State Street overall."

Art Gecko, 507 State St., also has benches outside the store where panhandlers gathered.

"There's definitely fewer panhandlers out but they also started just going around the corner," Andrea Barnes, an employee, said.

Although there are fewer panhandlers near her workplace, Barnes is unsure of how she feels about the amendment. Barnes said she feels people have the right to panhandle wherever they want, but as a woman, she gets harassed a lot.

Verveer said he never thought the amendment would have such a positive effect on the Downtown area and called the change "remarkable."

"It made a difference to people of all walks of life that enjoy the Downtown -- merchants, shoppers and residents alike. The cops love it," Verveer said.

\ Contact Aubre Andrus at aandrus@madison.com or 252-6120.

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