The Oklahoma City Council voted to move forward with an expansion of its approved panhandling ordinance at Tuesday morning’s meeting.
The expansion would increase the distance panhandlers must stay back from schools and other public areas.
The expansion is actually a change in the definition of “aggressive” panhandling to include those asking students for money and would require solicitors to stay 50 feet away from school property and bus stops. Currently the limit is 20 feet.
“We must protect students as they go to school and as they leave school,” Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis said after Tuesday’s meeting.
Pettis said the issue of students being approached by panhandlers was brought to his attention by Millwood School Board President Christopher Harrison. Pettis said in the meeting that he witnessed students being “harassed” at a bus stop by a solicitor.
“We don't want to wait for something to happen and it's our job as leaders to be proactive and not reactive,” Harrison said Tuesday afternoon.
He said there have been reports of students running into traffic to avoid solicitors.
But the change is being met with some concern because it would also apply to public transit stops, ATMs and outdoor cafes.
“This goes far beyond school children, I mean this is eliminating entire districts,” Councilman Ed Shadid said to other council members Tuesday.
Shadid added the change would eliminate panhandling from districts where people commonly gather outdoors like the Plaza District.
Still others have highlighted a link to the city’s proposed downtown park as a part of the MAPS-3 planning, calling it a preemptive attack on poverty near the park which is supposed to include outdoor dining.
“It's not criminalizing poverty,” Pettis said. “What we are saying is this. Students should be able to travel to school without being bothered by someone being asking them for money.”
The change also comes just weeks after the passage of a controversial ordinance that effectively banned panhandling from medians in Oklahoma City. The ordinance bans standing, siting or soliciting from medians less than 30 feet wide and within 200 feet of an intersection.
That decision was met with considerable outcry from members of the homeless community and anti-poverty advocates who have said it bans the disabled and less fortunate from making money.
However, city officials said it was for the safety of panhandlers and motorists after arguments over the constitutionality of the original proposal were brought to light.
The City Council will be holding a public hearing on the ordinance expansion Jan. 26. If allowed to move through without delays, the change would be up for a vote Feb. 9.