Oklahoma City tries to stop panhandling in medians

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma City council will look into a measure to stop panhandling on medians.

Mayor Mick Cornett and seven of the eight city council members will bring the ordinance forward at Tuesday's meeting.

"I think it's probably a good idea," said Gary Ask, who shops at the nearby Quail Springs Mall often. "It's really grown in the five years we've lived out here."

His wife, a frequent shopper, called the people on the corners "irritating," adding they've been pushier and more aggressive lately.

"There's been a couple times I almost hit a couple people, because they don't look before they cross the road," said Pam Ask. "If you're not paying attention, you're going to hit them."

City leaders said safety is the reason they're putting this ordinance forward.  Not only are panhandlers a risk to drivers, as they move into traffic to accept donations, but the city said they're also a danger to themselves.

"Especially with cell phones, no one's paying attention any more," said Brandy Coffman, who was also shopping in the area. "[Cars] could hop up on the curb in a split second and kill any one of those people."

But, some panhandlers told NewsChannel 4 they are as safe as can be standing on the medians.

"I don't step across the line. I don't walk across the median," said Ron, who held a sign that read "Homeless" at Penn and Memorial. "I know I'm safe. I protect myself. All I'm trying to do is make [money for a] motel."

Other panhandlers said firefighters are engaging more dangerous behavior than they are with their "fill the boot" campaigns often in the middle of streets.

Ron fears, if the city council makes his panhandling illegal, he'll go to jail or worse.

"I don't beg for money," he said. "I don't hit people up in parking lots. All I do is stand here, and that's it. I'm homeless. If I don't make motel money for the night, that's it, I'm done."

The current ordinance already prohibits panhandling in the street, but the proposed amendment would also apply to medians.

Violators of the current ordinance, as well as the proposed ordinance, are subject to a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and court costs. Those who are cited can choose to pay a $167 fine to the Court Clerk instead of appearing before a judge.

If someone with financial difficulties ends up in court, a judge will have the authority to decide if the person in question is legally unable to pay. If so, that person will not face jail time for failure to pay, and fines and costs will be waived.

Research from Oklahoma City's Homeless Alliance shows almost 80 percent of panhandlers are not homeless.

As an alternative to money, the group is asking people to hand out vouchers with information on downtown homeless shelters and a bus pass to get them there.

A public hearing on the city council ordinance is set for Sept. 29.

The ordinance could be adopted as early as Oct. 13.

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