Controversial panhandling proposal designed to protect Indy tourism, jobs

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INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard remains confident as a proposal to strengthen the city’s panhandling ordinance makes its way to the City-County Council.

Ballard claims the city needs to do more to protect tourism dollars and jobs.

“Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free?” asked Eric Balding, a homeless man who sat in downtown Indianapolis Thursday while holding a sign asking for money.

Ballard is on a mission to clamp down on aggressive panhandling and other forms of solicitation downtown through an ordinance currently under consideration.

“This is a racket. We need to call it that and get them out of here,” said Ballard.

Tourism officials claim panhandling is hurting the city’s convention business. According to Visit Indy, Indianapolis lost 10 meetings in the past two years after decision makers cited it as a key concern. Those conventions had the potential for about $6.3 million in visitor spending.

Visit Indy also said six active proposals worth approximately $19.3 million are considered at-risk for the same reason.

“The perception in the decision maker’s mind is panhandling equals an unsafe city, right, wrong or indifferent,” said Chris Gahl with Visit Indy.

Supporters of the proposal want to create a “no solicitation zone” in the heart of downtown between North, South, East and West streets, and around Lucas Oil Stadium and Victory Field. The zone would ban verbal requests for money, signs and cup shaking.

“It includes the Indianapolis Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the downtown hotels,” said Gahl.

The ACLU of Indiana is concerned about possible free speech violations. The organization has challenged the city in the past.

While City-County Councilor Jeff Miller—the ordinance’s sponsor—is optimistic, other Democratic councilors like Vop Osili wonder if the measure goes too far.

“We think what we’re proposing is defendable. We have a court of appeals decision that upheld essentially what we’re proposing right now,” said Ballard about a legal challenge to a similar law in Florida.

“I know what I’m doing now is low, but finding a job nowadays isn’t that easy,” said Balding.

Further debate is expected before the council votes.