By Shane Franklin, Ozarks News Journal
SPRINGFIELD, MO – One thing you’re sure to see in any city is signage; signs telling you where you’re going, where to park, and where not to stand. One type of sign you won’t be seeing as much of in downtown Springfield these days, are signs held by homeless people.
A new panhandling bill passed by Springfield City Council has amended a previous law pushing panhandlers further away from business entrances and ATMs around the city, from 15 to 20 feet.
While aggressive panhandling was already banned in Springfield, the new measure goes further, prohibiting passive panhandling in areas the city’s deemed a safety hazard- within 5’ of a curb edge, sidewalk, median or highway overpass.
Passive panhandling means quietly holding a sign, eyes down, pleading for change.
The Park Central Square Task Force recommended the bill to city council with the intention of easing the fear and intimidation some people say they feel when visiting the downtown area.
Not all council members agreed with the recommendation.
“I’m not saying that I am comfortable with panhandling. I’m sorry, but I hope no one in this room is comfortable when they see somebody saying they don’t have food to eat. We should be uncomfortable seeing people beg for food, but that should not prohibit people from trying to stay alive,” said Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky.
Colton Hughes knows the struggle to stay alive as a homeless teen on Springfield streets. Now he helps homeless and at-risk youth at the Rare Breed, a center for youth services near the heart of downtown.
He says that not being able panhandle is going to hurt homeless teens the most, many of whom fall through gaps in the social service system.
“That five bucks you could have got from holding that sign could have gotten you couch for the night or something for warmth for the night. Now you’re taking any possibility of them making anything to get them that spot,” said Hughes.
“If you say they can still hold signs, then where can you hold them. If that’s your argument then show me where you say we can hold signs and serve that purpose of getting [those] few extra bucks. ,” said Hughes.
Jerry Compton voted for the measure. He said he acknowledges that there are people in need in the city, but he says, this bill is really about making downtown safe for everyone to visit.
“But I’ve had probably more appeals from merchants and other peoples who believe it’s an obstacle to the revitalization of downtown, and we need to try to limit it somehow because people don’t feel safe in this current situation,” said Compton.
The law is now in effect in Springfield, passing 7-2; with Burlison and Rushesky dissenting.
Hughes says he wants people to know that people you see out holding signs, are not bad people. They’re simply people in need.
Despite city leaders passing legislation aimed at the homeless, Hughes says he just hopes people can remember that “when you see someone outside holding a sign, it doesn’t mean you should fear them; it simply means they’re a person in need.”