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New Milwaukee Ordinance Bans Panhandling on Median Strips

City leaders say panhandling has become a problem in certain neighborhoods, including on medians in busy streets.

The City of Milwaukee is trying to get its arms around the persistent problem of panhandling. Earlier this year, the city started an effort to educate panhandlers about social services available to them. The new rule that kicks in Friday relies on enforcement. It bans standing on medians to ask for money, something that's grown common in certain areas.

One trouble spot is the neighborhood around 25th and Clybourn. In one block alone, we saw three men holding up cardboard signs asking for money. One man’s sign said: “Homeless. Need a little help.”

“Anything and everything we've seen,” says Rachel Witt, operations manager at Bonded Transportation Solutions, on N. 27th St. She says panhandlers in the neighborhood are ubiquitous and troublesome.

“We see them constantly on the corner asking our drivers and employees for money, stopping them in the parking lot asking for money, we've seen them sleeping on our sidewalks,” Witt says.

Witt says the situation is more than just frustrating.

“It's very embarrassing for our customers, how do you explain to them 'sorry for our panhandlers.' You don't even want anybody to come here to do sales calls, you always want to go to them because you're kind of embarrassed of your neighborhood,” Witt says.

Witt hopes the city's new ordinance, forbidding panhandlers from standing on medians, will make a dent. Those who violate it could face fines up to $200. Ald. Robert Bauman says the law gives police the tools they need.

“This at least allows for enforcement to take place, and at known concentrations of this activity,” Bauman says.

Bauman says the ordinance also could make the busy stretches of streets safer.

“These people stand on these little islands, they're maybe three feet wide, they're an extremely hazardous situation. I know at least one incident where one of the panhandlers was struck by an automobile and injured. So it is a safety hazard, no question about it, to the panhandlers,” Bauman says.

MacCanon Brown supports keeping panhandlers off medians. She's worked with homeless people for more than 20 years, most recently at a homeless sanctuary that bears her name. Brown also backs the city's effort earlier this year to distribute handouts and posters, which inform panhandlers about safety net programs.

“Those programs give people the tools to change their lifestyles, to advance in their situations, and it makes more sense to give money to those programs,” Brown says.

Brown adds that by helping to fund organizations -- instead of rolling down your window and giving a handout -- you can ensure your money is well-spent. She says many people stationed at street corners with signs saying they're homeless, actually aren't; some even are part of money-making scams.

“An ordinary citizen cannot discern whether a person is homeless or not, they cannot discern whether a person is an addict or not, or even discern their motives, their situations,” Brown says.

Brown says while she backs efforts to end panhandling, she wants to make sure policies are not "mean-spirited." She says some people asking for money are truly in need and deserve to be treated with dignity.