Panhandling an increasing problem Downtown, business owners says

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Last year, Dr. James Ford said panhandlers were intimidating patients entering and leaving his Downtown dentist’s office.

This year, Ford said, nothing has changed.

“The panhandling has not gotten any better,” said Ford, whose office is at the southeast corner of North High and East Long streets.

“They’re more aggressive,” he said. “A lot of loitering. They’re sleeping or passed out on the sidewalks, on both sides of the building.”

He said one person slept against his window for eight hours. When he called police, Ford said the officer told him that he couldn’t do anything because the sidewalk is a public right-of-way.

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Columbus police spokeswoman Chantay Boxill said in an email that Cmdr. Terry Moore, who oversees the Downtown area, told her that he has not heard from officers that there has been an increase in panhandling Downtown. From May 1, 2018, through May 30, 2019, Columbus police responded to about 280 panhandling-related calls in the Downtown area and parts of the Short North, Italian Village, Victorian Village and Harrison West.

Ford said about 20 patients of his have mentioned their concerns. He said he fears he will lose patients, and said those he interviews for staff positions have brought up panhandlers as well.

Lisa Defendiefer, deputy director of operations and advocacy for the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, said her group is receiving more complaints about panhandling. From Jan. 1 through June 15, her office received 125 calls about panhandling.

“We discourage people from giving. If people continue to give, panhandling will continue and they’ll continue to come out in full force,” she said.

Defendiefer said she met with city officials on April 30, including Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, interim police Chief Tom Quinlan, Public Safety Director Ned Pettus, property owners, social service providers and Short North representatives about safety issues. She also met with Quinlan on May 2.

Police plan to deploy more officers Downtown this summer from the area around the Ohio State campus, she said. 

Defendiefer told them that although panhandling is likely up all over the city, criminal activity, intimidating behavior and other quality-of-life issues have a much bigger impact on pedestrians in the Downtown and Short North areas than they do in other neighborhoods.

Although Downtown represents only 1% of the city’s land area, 17% of the city’s jobs are there, she told them.

“Those income taxes fund vital city services,” she told them. “If employees don’t feel safe Downtown, employers may consider moving to suburban locations.”

Defendiefer said special improvement district officials don’t want conventions to move to other cities because of safety concerns. The city’s bed tax brought in nearly $50 million in 2018, and convention attendees spent another $16 million in the community that year.

In 2018, the Columbus City Council passed legislation to discourage aggressive panhandling while not running afoul of First Amendment rights, treating actions instead as a safety issue. The new law prohibits transactions in the middle of the street or on freeway ramps, and prohibits panhandlers from following people who have told them no, or touching them. 

Boxill said Moore is having a lieutenant look at statistics to determine if any citations have been issued. Moore told her that unless an officer witnesses the exchange between the person asking for money and the person giving money, police can’t charge them.

Tom Murdoch, a Grove City photographer who often works Downtown, said one panhandler scared him because he was so intimidating.

“They get so excited … ‘I have to have this money,'” Murdoch said.

The Community Shelter Board said the point-in-time count of homeless people in Columbus and Franklin County earlier this year was 1,907, up from 1,807 a year ago. But not all people who panhandle are homeless.

Since Jan. 1, the special improvement district helped 42 people move off Downtown streets. Of those, 41% had family or friends with whom they could stay. Another 40% were connected to temporary shelters in Columbus, while 19% were linked to permanent housing.

The district provided about 300 bus passes to individuals who needed housing, were looking for transportation to jobs or health-related appointments.

In 2018, the special improvement district helped move 127 people off the streets. Of those, 32% had family or friends with whom they could stay.

Another 33% were referred to temporary shelters in Columbus, while 35% were linked to permanent housing.

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