Middle of the Road

Category: Valley News Issue: March 2015
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A new Phoenix ordinance that bans loitering on medians hits panhandlers hard – but is nothing more than a safety measure, according to law enforcement.

A drive down Peoria Avenue west of the I-17 around lunchtime used to be an adventure in traffic – vehicular and otherwise. People clutching cardboard signs asking for money – or maybe just a blessing – peppered the sidewalks while the 9-to-5ers  drove around to pick up their lunches.

Cars still fill the streets today, but after a new city ordinance passed last November, the pedestrian-perilous spaces between them are relatively empty.

Frank, who didn’t want to share his last name, has been hanging around this area for about six months. His sign playfully invites passersby to see if they can hit him with a quarter, and he likes to give thumbs up to drivers he catches laughing. He usually makes about $15 a day panhandling on these street corners.

“Corners” is the key word. Thanks to the ordinance passed unanimously by Phoenix City Council last November, loitering on city medians is now illegal. Offenders get a warning the first time. But round two is strike three – a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Frank says word of the new ordinance (spread largely by police) has thinned the ranks of panhandlers in his neighborhood. But that wasn’t the impetus behind the ordinance, according to Phoenix Police Lieutenant Matt Giordano, who worked with the city’s legal and street departments to put the law together. “I’m a traffic person. I don’t deal with panhandlers,” Giordano says.

The purpose of the ordinance was safety, he says. Though there’s no record of any fatalities in Phoenix resulting from pedestrians standing on a median, Giordano says the city saw more than 40 accidents in 2013 involving drivers who ran up onto the median – accidents that could have been fatal had a human been standing there.

“Medians are small,” Giordano says. “Drivers don’t expect people to be there.”

For panhandlers, medians are prime real estate. People soliciting cash donations on the median have access to idling traffic and driver’s side windows. Giordano says he met with leaders at Phoenix homeless shelter UMOM to talk about the effect the new ordinance might have on the poor. He said he received positive feedback to move forward, and maintains the ordinance was not at all meant to affect the right to panhandle.

 Deadliest States for Pedestrians
*fatalities per 100,000 population
1. Delaware  2.94
2. New Mexico  2.92
3. South Carolina  2.60
4. Louisiana  2.56
5. Florida  2.46
6. North Carolina  2.02
7. Nevada  1.96
8. Arizona, Hawaii 1.87
9. Texas  1.83
10. new jersey  1.76
source: NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2012 data

Though there’s no record of any fatalities in Phoenix resulting from pedestrians standing on a median, there are multiple recorded fatalities in the jaywalking world – a minor offense that isn’t really addressed in the new ordinance.

The state of Arizona does ban jaywalking – sort of. If pedestrians improperly cross an intersection “at which traffic control signals are in operation,” jaywalking carries up to a $250 fine. But if you take the shortest route across a long stretch of street with no crosswalks nearby (preferably at a right angle), you’re right as rain (A.R.S. 28-793).

“We looked at jaywalking,” Giordano says. “But we have such large breaks between signals. We don’t want to make folks walk an extra half mile just to cross the street.”

PHM 800x800 FPO

Still, he says the primary goal with the median ordinance was safety. Conversely, panhandling is the expressed priority of Republican State Senator John Kavanagh, who said he wishes the new ordinance would go statewide. That’s just what he tried to do in 2014, when he passed a bill to ban what he calls “aggressive panhandling” in Arizona. It was vetoed by then-Governor Jan Brewer, who said the issue should he handled on a local scale. Kavanagh plans to reintroduce his bill this year, with an added section banning panhandling at intersections because drivers stopped at traffic lights have no option to leave the situation.

If Kavanagh’s bill passes, it could face legal challenges similar to the one in Maine in 2014, when the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the city of Portland to overturn a panhandling ban on medians (also passed purportedly for safety reasons.)

Though the Phoenix ordinance will likely, by nature, affect the poor more than other groups, Dan Pochoda, Senior Counsel with the ACLU of Arizona, said he didn’t find it to be discriminatory. “The constitution doesn’t provide affirmative protections for economic reasons” like it does for free speech, he says, adding the Arizona ACLU doesn’t have the resources to watch how the law gets enforced, but if they catch word of discriminatory enforcement, they’ll dig deeper.

For now, it appears they might not get that chance. The ordinance is working, according to Frank. “I ain’t going out there,” he says, nodding toward the median. “It’s against the law.