AURORA | Panhandlers will soon have to contend with signs around some of Aurora’s busiest intersections urging drivers to give to charities instead, after an anti-begging campaign was approved Monday by the majority of Aurora’s City Council.
Sponsors Angela Lawson and Steve Sundberg pitched the campaign — which the city projects will cost $29,440, including the cost of posting and maintaining 64 signs at 16 intersections around the city — as a way of protecting panhandlers and drivers in busy intersections.
“This is not going to stop people from giving,” Lawson said. “To me, this is more about the safety issue along these narrow intersections and these narrow areas where the cars are so close to the people who are panhandling. And that’s a dangerous situation.”
The group voted 6-4 to introduce the campaign, with progressives Alison Coombs, Juan Marcano, Ruben Medina and Crystal Murillo voting “no.”
Opponents questioned whether it would have an impact and if the group was stigmatizing homeless people asking for help. Marcano noted that a comparable program in Salt Lake City raised about $5,000 per year, which would not be enough to provide housing for a single person.
“I’m just not seeing the payoff for this kind of policy,” he said. “I do share concerns about folks being on medians and in traffic, but this isn’t how we’re going to change that.”
Coombs also repeated her criticism from the Aug. 15 study session where the campaign was first considered — that the proposal lacked important data in part because it had not gone through a policy committee, where a subgroup of council members has the chance to provide input on a proposal before it’s brought before the council as a whole.
Sundberg said Aug. 15 that he and Lawson skipped the policy committee step to “fast-track” the proposal and that it was one of or the first pieces of legislation he had introduced. On Monday, he said the move allowed them to evade criticism from council progressives.
“If this would have went before one of your committees, it (would have) had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting out of there and going to a study session,” Sundberg told Coombs. “If we would have put the camping ban through one of your committees, it would not have made it either. The city would look like 1969 Woodstock … with all of the campers around.”
A policy committee does not have the power to stop a council member from bringing legislation to the full council for the entire group to consider and vote on.
After Coombs’ criticism last week that sponsors lacked important information such as the number of traffic accidents caused by panhandlers and citations issued for prohibited forms of begging, additional data was included in the council’s agenda packet.
Staffers wrote that three summons had been issued this year for panhandling too close to a street or highway and no summons were issued for “aggressive begging,” though officers were said to “often contact individuals” and give them verbal warnings.
They also said police would have to review every traffic accident report to determine how many accidents involved panhandlers. While Lawson said last week that she was also concerned about links between panhandling and human trafficking, staffers said they were unaware of any cases of that happening.
They wrote that police were able to find 163 calls where the term “panhandler” was used, but determining the context of those mentions would require each call to be reviewed.
Supporters of the campaign specifically said it would not prohibit people from asking for or providing money and help, which courts have ruled is protected speech, though they also argued that panhandling enables some homeless people to support addictions to drugs.
Sundberg said two people who panhandled near his workplace have overdosed on heroin, which they may have purchased using money obtained from panhandling.
“When it comes to stigma, I’d like to have the stigma of saving a life or two,” Sundberg said.
Marcano said he thought the campaign would not stop people from overdosing on drugs.
“What you’re trying to do here, while I think it’s very well-intentioned, would not have helped either of those two people significantly, or substantially, or frankly, probably, at all,” Marcano said. “For the amount that we’re going to spend on the signs alone, you could put two people through permanent supportive housing for a year. And that would have saved their lives.”
In addition to signs, the city will use its social media accounts and other resources like Aurora TV, newsletters, posters and the city website to spread the message of the “Give Real Change” campaign, steering donations toward the Spirit of Aurora charity in particular.