Saratoga Springs lawmakers will consider a proposal to crack down on panhandling this fall, but in the meantime they’re hoping to get more public input on the issue.
The ordinance was proposed at Tuesday’s City Council meeting by Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino. It would prohibit solicitation in various spaces in the city including within 20 feet of an ATM; in a parking garage, lot or station or the sidewalk adjacent to those areas or within any area of a public skyway, alley or tunnel.
Panhandling in parts of downtown Saratoga Springs and at a handful of key entranceways to town has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent years. Some property and business owners have said the prevalence of panhandling in parts of town has been off-putting for visitors and customers.
Montagnino did not return a request for comment Wednesday about the origin of the proposed ordinance. City Mayor Ron Kim said Wednesday that he isn’t sure where he stands on the proposal, but the City Council will get input from the public at a public hearing at their Oct. 18 meeting.
The proposed law has already been met with criticism by city residents, with most of them sharing similar sentiments that such a law does not address the issues facing homeless people who panhandle, such as housing, mental health and addiction issues.
“The National Alliance to End Homelessness approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly or attending to substance abuse issues,” said Sherie Grinter, who runs Saratoga Stronger, which feeds homeless people on Saturdays at 6 p.m. in a statement she provided to the council.
Saratoga Black Lives Matter leader Lexis Figuereo said the city needs to be focused on making the community a positive, fair and equal place for everyone.
“What Saratoga Springs should be about, not what Saratoga Springs has been about,” he said while addressing the council Tuesday. “The new Saratoga Springs will be Saratoga Springs when all people have housing, all people have equitable food, all people have equitable justice, all people have a chance at life, all people have a chance at the American dream. But that’s not what happens in Saratoga Springs. The rich continue being rich, the poor get criminalized.”
Resident Patti Riggi said other cities have been sued for such laws because they violate a person’s First Amendment right.
“So is this city prepared to be sued?” she asked.
The New York Civil Liberties Union shared similar sentiments as Riggi when asked about the law Wednesday.
“Panhandling and use of public sidewalks for non-criminal activities are First Amendment rights protected by the United States and New York Constitutions,” said Mohamed Taguine, a communications strategist with the organization. “The ordinance being proposed by the Saratoga Springs City Council is antithetical to the values of generosity and compassion that are a notable part of New York life. While no one condones intimidation, the mean-spirited nature of this ordinance criminalizes poverty can be lost on no one. Public spaces are public for everyone, no matter the size of their wallet.”
City resident Rachel Dwyer asked that data be provided to show this is a problem. However, that data doesn’t necessarily exist. Saratoga Police Public Information Officer Paul Veitch said because solicitation isn’t currently against the law they don’t have a specific data set on calls for such issues. The call could come in as harassment but culminating that data would require shifting through every harassment call, Veitch said.
Kim said he’s probably received one to two calls a week on the topic.
Police Chief Shane Crooks was not available for comment. Veitch said he was not in town.
Kim said he will be making an announcement at the next city meeting on Oct. 4 regarding a navigation center to help the homeless, a shelter and public housing. He also said the city does have a homeless court where there are people who can talk to someone who is homeless about what help is available to them.
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