Give Representative Justin Price some credit: When he introduced a cruel, anti-human bill that would make it easier for people to run over protesters with their cars he stood his ground and defended the bill. He didn’t hustle out of the room as fast as possible to avoid criticism.
Representative Charlene Lima (Democrat, District 14 Cranston, Providence) maintains that the intent of her bill is not to stop people from panhandling or to stop people from giving to panhandlers if they so choose. Lima says that her bill requires those giving money “to a panhandler, or anyone on a roadway… to pull over into a legitimate parking space. And this is for safety reasons! Would you let your child roller skate on an island with traffic?”
Representative Jeremiah O’Grady asked if there were any laws preventing him from stopping in the road already, if he were say, looking for a lost dog and wanted to check between houses. After much discussion, (Lima said that driving like that was not permitted, while Representative Jason Knight, who has been prosecuting and defending traffic cases for a decade, said it was.)
Lima’s law prohibits donating to panhandlers even if you are already stopped at a red light, and did not stop for the expressed purpose of giving money to a panhandler. Hearing her defend the bill, it became obvious that Lima has never opened her window to give a panhandler money.
“Where’s the danger?” asked Lima, “Picture this: You’re stopped at the red light. The panhandler comes over to the car, you’re handing him the money, okay? He’s going back, the light changes. You take off the car behind him hits him. It happens all the time.”
“He’s not in the street,” objected Representative Edie Ajello. “He’s on the island. I’m right next to the island. He’s not in the street.”
“Well, how does he get the money?” asked Lima.
“I’m right next to the island,” explained Ajello.
“I understand what you’re saying,” said Lima, “but are we going to guarantee that every single person that’s standing out there is going to be close enough to a car that they’re never going to have to step into the street?”
O’Grady wanted to know if the law was necessary, since it’s already illegal to stop and obstruct traffic.
“Well, obviously it is, because the police cannot do anything because they’re not doing anything now and the reason they’re not doing anything is because the law doesn’t address it,” said Lima. Lima then suggested that people could get permits to collect money in the streets, but that idea is nowhere in the bill.
Lima was out of the room when Representative Robert Nardolillo (Republican, District 28, Coventry) introduced his bill only seconds later. Nardolillo’s bill is “saying that the area in the middle [of the road] is tremendously unsafe for you to be there and the liabilities to the driver and the potential injury to you, as a pedestrian, is the acknowledgement of this legislation. We’re looking at the pedestrian’s safety and at the driver’s safety.”
Determining what roads and areas are safe for pedestrians will become the job of the DOT director. Information about accidents and injuries or the “strong potential for injury” will allow the director to determine if an area is unlawful to be on, said Nardolillo.
“So there might be some state highways and roads that have medians that folks might be able to stand on, per the director of DOT,” said Nardolillo. Signage will be put in places where it is unlawful to stand.
When he finished presenting his bill, Nardolillo was out the door in a flash.
Jane Young of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Malcus Mills spoke on behalf of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality). He testimony before House Judicairy set the moral tone for the evening.
These bills, said Mills, “have nothing to do with safety or trying to keep people safe… it’s about moving the homeless out so that they are no seen.”
As for the panhandlers, Mills said that he has seen panhandlers at work and that the “way they conduct themselves, there is no safety issue at all. They are at the lights, they are on the island, and these aren’t little kids. These aren’t folks who don’t know what they’re doing out there and they are being safe for themselves. So that is a non-issue.”
“These people are not stupid,” said Mills, “They are not hurting anybody, they’re just trying to eke out whatever living they can… They have to do what they have to do. Why do you want to make it even harder for them?
Reverend Duane Clinker identifies as a radical Christian. “We are in a time of crisis,” said Clinker, “No one wants to see beggars on the street. No one wants to beg.”
The problems we face are big, and they won’t be solved locally, said Clinker, but they will be solved. While that happens, “We need to survive.”
“When you tell a radical Christian, when you tell a humanist – it’s not just a Christian thing but it is a Christian thing and I’m a Christian pastor – when you make a law telling me I can’t help somebody, as God is my witness I’m going to violate that law.”
“We’re not going to get out of this by grinding the poor, and that’s what this is. This is grinding the poor… When I’m stopped at a light I’ve got to be able to roll down my window and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I’ve got to be able to give a buck or two. That’s what I’m called to do. Understand – That’s my religion and I’m not weird on that. That’s a lot of our religions. For them who don’t have it as their religion, they have it as their creed. And that’s good.”
LeeAnn Byrne, policy director at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, got very emotional as she spoke. Citing Rhode Island’s excellent record in recognizing the humanity of the homeless and passing laws, like the Homeless Bill of Rights respecting them, Byrne noted that she “recognizes that seeing people begging on the street makes people uncomfortable. But there are few people in the state that get more upset seeing this than me.
“These people are my constituents and their resorting to panhandling is evidence that our system is failing.
“Panhandling isn’t dangerous. Homelessness is. Every year we hold a vigil for people who have died while homeless, and they’re not being killed by traffic accidents. They’re dying because of hypothermia, they’re dying because of chronic disease, they’re dying because someone has committed violence against them.”
Steven Brown from the RI ACLU said his group opposes the bill. The ACLU sued Cranston over similar panhandling bans, settling the suit with Cranston acknowledging the law was unconstitutional.
“A statewide standard is just as unconstitutional as a city ordinance,” said Brown, “and attempts to tweak language here and there simply do not resolve the basic constitutional concerns that panhandling is first amendment protected activity.
“And this is aimed at panhandling. I don’t think there should be any question about that.
“For legal reasons, for policy reasons, for reasons of compassion, I hope you will oppose theses two bills.”
Mike Araujo executive director of RI Jobs With Justice, said the bills target people for being poor and do nothing to target the systemic issues of poverty.
“The pretext of the bills is not only destructive, it’s dishonest on its face. If you’re going to say you don’t like seeing poor people say it! Have the courage of your convictions to say it.”
There are zero studies indicating that standing on a median strip and asking for money is unsafe, said Araujo. “If you don’t want to see them, say it. Say you do not want to see homeless people.
“To lie about it, to come up with a false reason of public safety, not only shrouds the issue in a weird web of other lies, it shields us from the actual problem.”
“The dignity to show solidarity and care,” said Arajo, “is a right that I hold deeply and dearly in my heart. I consider it the foundation of my family, the neighborhood and the country. To break that, to outlaw my right of solidarity, is to outlaw my rights as a human being.”
“If this bill were to pass… I guarantee that the membership of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice, the larger labor community and the folks who work in the poverty as well as the faith community, will be out violating this law as often, as freely as we can.”
Megan Smith provides direct services to those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
“This really is about survival. It’s not about wanting to do this. Everyone I speak with who panhandles hates the feeling of being look at like scum by passersby. It’s not a pleasurable experience. It’s nothing that anyone would opt into should they have another option.”