TOPEKA (KSNT) – People looking for financial help can be seen dotting roads and intersections in the Capital City, but is this a legal activity?
The question of panhandlers in Topeka came up three years ago during a City Council session where members voted on whether or not to pass a new ordinance to ban panhandling. While not a total ban, it prevents panhandlers from congregating at certain places in Topeka.
Panhandling is described as “a form of solicitation or begging derived from the impression created by someone holding out his hand to beg or using a container to collect money,” according to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
The Topeka City Council approved of the ordinance at a vote of 8-1 on Jan. 7, 2020. The ordinance banned people from panhandling at the following 23 intersections under penalty of a misdemeanor and a fine up to $499 or 30 days in jail:
- S 5th Street and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW 12th Street and SW Jackson Street
- SW 6th Avenue and Orchard Street
- SW 8th Avenue and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW 10th Avenue and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW Huntoon Street and SW Gage Boulevard
- SW 21st Street and SW Fairlawn Road
- SW 6th Avenue and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW 10th Avenue and SW Lane Street
- SE 21st Street and SE Adams Street
- SW 29th Street and SW Fairlawn Road
- SW 21st Street and SW Gage Boulevard
- SW 6th Avenue and SW Gage Boulevard
- SW 21st Street and SW Wanamaker Road
- SW 17th Street and SW Wanamaker Road
- SW Huntoon Street and SW Fairlawn Road
- SE 15th Street and SE Adams
- SW 29th Street and SW Gage Boulevard
- SW 29th Street and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW 21st Street and SW Washburn Avenue
- SW 29th Street and SW Wanamaker Road
- SW 21st Street and SW Topeka Boulevard
- SW 17th Street and SW Westover Road and SW Oakley Street
These intersections were selected due to the high number of crashes occurring at them, according to city officials. The ordinance applies to both panhandlers and people who stop their cars to hand out cash. Language in the ordinance states that pedestrians approaching vehicles when stopped or in use or staying upon medians and in the public right-of-way for reasons other than crossing the road create safety hazards for other pedestrians and drivers.
Groups like the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC) point out that the underlying causes that lead to panhandling include homelessness and poverty in the local community. The NHLC recommends replacing anti-panhandling laws with housing, jobs and services.
Topeka’s ordinance raises questions regarding free speech laws as panhandling is connected to the First Amendment, according to MTSU. Many other municipalities across the country have passed ordinances similar to Topeka’s, sometimes focusing on the difference between aggressive and passive panhandling: passive consists of solicitation without threat or menace while aggressive is solicitation accompanied by actual or implied threats. It is because of the free speech concerns that Topeka’s City Council is unable to completely ban panhandling.
In short, panhandling is still legal throughout much of Topeka and is only banned at select areas. To read the full City of Topeka ordinance on pedestrian and traffic safety, click here.