Opponents of panhandling ordinance come out in force at Oklahoma City Council Meeting

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- For more than an hour Tuesday, the city council heard from its people on a proposed ordinance that would move panhandlers -- and anyone else -- off the medians.

The vast majority of people who took the podium for public comment wanted to tell the city passing the law would be a mistake.

"We unfortunately see this as our city's attempt to address our panhandling problem," said Ranya O'Connor, who helps run a newspaper written and sold by the homeless. "But we think it's a punitive way to address it and that's not effective."

The law, conceived by Sixth Ward Councilwoman Meg Salyer but introduced by the mayor and six of the other seven council members, would make it illegal for anyone to stand in the median.

It would not prohibit panhandling on sidewalks or on the sides of streets.

Salyer has said her office receives multiple complaints daily about panhandlers on the streets.

Tuesday city leaders tried to assure people this ordinance was intended to keep everyone safe.

But that's not how Ranya O'Connor sees it. Newspaper vendors are trained in safety and never sell after nightfall.

"In the two years of our existence, we've never had a vendor get injured on a median and we've never had a vendor express fear on a median," she said. "It has the potential to really negatively affect our program and our vendor stability and income."

In a large city, O'Connor says 80 percent of newspapers are sold in the medians.

Firefighters and members of the Muscular Dystrophy Association say they would be hurt by the ordinance too, during the popular Fill the Boot campaigns.

"At a time when our research is the most promising and people need the most help is a time when hundreds of thousands of dollars are now in jeopardy," said Brad Barghols, Chief Executive of the MDA's Central Division. "Clearly with less income, there's less outflow, and we cannot continue to do all the things we do if we take a big hit in our revenue like we're facing."

Barghols estimates the campaign could lose 70-80 percent of its revenue if the law were changed.

Others are worried about the $500 maximum fine the law imposes on violators, saying it could push the poor even deeper into poverty. Still more, people say the law would just exacerbate the panhandling problem and push people to sidewalks and street corners.

The Homeless Alliance estimates 80 percent of panhandlers are not actually homeless, but opponents of the ordinance say the law could push them there.

"A majority of them are on the verge of homelessness," said O'Connor. "They're living in poverty, panhandling to make ends meet and survive. So if we take this avenue away from them, then yes they will join our homeless numbers."

Second Ward Councilman Ed Shadid says he doesn't think the law is necessary, noting it's already illegal to step off a median into the street. He also questions if standing in the median has proven to actually be dangerous.

Police Chief Bill Citty says last year, 14 people died in accidents at intersections. This year, there have been 11 deaths.

Cecilia Robinson-Woods doesn't want one of her students to become part of that statistic. The Millwood Public Schools superintendent says kids are walking in traffic to avoid panhandlers on their way to school. Many bus stops are also near panhandlers, she said.

"I'm absolutely worried about the safety of kids," Cecilia said. "Not just because of the profiles of the people who are generally panhandling. Without some sort of city restriction or ordinance there, who knows the numbers of panhandlers that could grow and get closer and closer to the school."

And then there are people like Pat Miracle, who wonder what message the panhandlers in the median send to visitors.

"I'm all for helping the underprivileged as much as I can, but I don't think that panhandling is helping anybody," she said. "I think instead it's unsightly. It doesn't make our city look real attractive."

Miracle says panhandling reflects poorly on the community that's worked so hard to build up its image.

"We've come a long way and I hate to see panhandlers infringing on the improvements that we've made," she said.

The council unanimously moved the ordinance forward to a final vote, which will occur in two weeks, on Oct. 13.