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Onondaga County law could ban aggressive panhandling

Ellen Abbott
WRVO Public Media
Onondaga County legislators.

Onondaga County lawmakers are considering a local law that would ban “aggressive soliciting” from panhandlers on the streets and sidewalks of central New York. 

Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon has been circling around this issue since he was a common councilor in the city of Syracuse more than a decade ago. He said the idea is to focus not simply on any panhandler, panhandling is protected by the First Amendment, but what he calls aggressive actions.

"This is taking the act of aggressively soliciting and harassing people and saying that you can no longer do that and here are the consequences," McMahon said. "The individual who will solicit you for a donation, you say no, and they continue to solicit you. They block your path to your destination. They don’t allow you to get in your car. The individual who is in the middle of the road soliciting. It’s a danger to them and to cars." 

McMahon said this law does not criminalize panhandling, but he said he thinks it hit the sweet spot, with support from judges, prosecutors and some homeless advocates. It allows judges the flexibility to not only fine or jail a lawbreaker, but to get that individual into a mental health or drug addiction program, that goes to the core of why that person is on the streets.

"You give the judges the ability to put people in situations where they can get healthy and succeed," McMahon said. "And simply by passing an ordinance, you are going to get some behavioral changes right away."

Not all lawmakers are on board with this. Democratic Floor Leader Linda Ervin is concerned this does criminalize panhandling, and she wants to make sure there is help for those individuals before making that jump.

"It’s a tough situation to just do a law and then not do anything else," Ervin said. "And that’s my problem. We’ve got to do something else about this issue, because people are on the streets for other reasons, and that’s what we have to think about before this law goes on the books.”

A vote is expected next week.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.