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Ordinance to curtail "aggressive" panhandling fails in Saratoga Springs

Saratoga Springs city councilors on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022
Image capture by WAMC
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City of Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Springs city councilors on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

A measure intended to discourage “aggressive” panhandling in Saratoga Springs failed to gain traction at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

At the height of the summer racing and tourism season, the Saratoga Springs City Council on Tuesday held a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would define and prohibit “aggressive” solicitation.

Downtown panhandling has drawn complaints from residents, visitors and business owners for years and often comes up during campaign season.

Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino introduced the ordinance as a way to direct those experiencing homelessness to public services, via the city court system. Under the ordinance, “aggressive” panhandlers would be issued an appearance ticket.

“There are a lot of people who are in desperate need of services who aren’t getting the services they need. And it’s a sin. That’s the only way I can put it,” said Montagnino.

But the proposal drew blowback from members of the public. Public comments Tuesday ran largely against the proposal, on First Amendment grounds.

“I feel like you are definitely targeting the homelessness and less fortunate people of our community. And what about their rights?” asked city resident Patty Riggi.

Shawn Johnson is formerly homeless city resident who shared a story his own past experiences of asking for money….

“There’s times where you need to spend some money to get out of the elements, like the winter. And you have people that just come up to you anyways. And there’s no crime in asking somebody, all right? But if they want to give it you, that’s their decision,” said Johnson.

As the council debated the issue, Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub feared the ordinance could have unintended consequences.

“Like, if I raise my hand and say, ‘She’s too close to me. This is egregious.’ Well, OK. What happens? You’re going to have one, you’re going to have a rich white lady over here who says that and you’re going to have a homeless person. So who are you going to believe?” said Golub.

Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran also had questions, and wondered if the ordinance was the right solution to a larger issue.

“One of the things I think we can do that would be the most humane is to stop making excuses for people and start treating them like regular folks,” said Moran.

City leaders have united around the concept of establishing a permanent drop-in shelter, but the goal has remained elusive. Last week, the city in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness began distributing Saratoga Cares cards – which contain contact info for housing and humans services organizations.

But a short supply of real estate in the fastest growing county in the state remains an issue.

“I agree with the comments that we need housing and we’re looking at that and we’ve had discussions with the housing authority and other entities to try to get that here in Saratoga Springs. But I also don’t think that having this kind of statute with a homeless court that directly looks at the situation of these individuals is going to be all that onerous,” said Mayor Ron Kim.

Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi suggested the city pay for a study to better understand the issues related to panhandling…

“But, sort of, more of like, ‘How is this aggressive panhandling issue…how does this impact the business district? How does this impact the greater community of Saratoga Springs?” said Sanghvi.

An amendment was added to sunset the ordinance at the end of the year, with plans to examine the data afterward.

But in the end, the ordinance failed in a 3 to 2 vote, with Kim and Montagnino on the losing side.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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