New panhandling laws passed, HOT team says most aren't really homeless

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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) UPDATE (12/12/17): Wichita City Council members unanimously passed two ordinances that focus around panhandling.

Officers with the Wichita Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) say they offer panhandlers food and warm place to stay, but they say most of the time no one takes them up on their offer.

"Oftentimes we see signs say they are a vet and they aren't a veteran, they say they are homeless, they aren't really homeless," said Officer Nate Schweithale with the WPD HOT team.

Officers say panhandlers are making hundreds of dollars a day by stepping out into traffic to collect money.

But when panhandlers are blocking traffic or causing accidents, then it becomes dangerous for drivers and pedestrians.

Now, a new ordinance passed by the Wichita City Council will make panhandling a misdemeanor punishable with a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

The current ordinance only prohibits people from soliciting employment or rides from drivers.

The HOT team says the change will help them do their job.

"In the past, there was nothing they could really do about it, and I think this gives us a little more tools to educate drivers and pedestrians about that," said Schweithale.

Tuesday morning, the Wichita city council also passed another ordinance related to panhandling. It cracks down on aggressive or harassing behavior. Those who break the law could also face a $500 fine and up to six months in custody.

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The City of Wichita appears to be preparing to address the issue of panhandling in busy streets across the area.

One new law would make it illegal to approach a vehicle for the exchange of any item, and the other one prohibits harassment or aggressive behavior to exchange items.

Chances are you've seen someone with a sign asking for something, and you may have even given them money.

"We find that people who are doing panhandling are not actually homeless," said Garland Egerton is Executive Director with Inter-Faith Ministries, an organization dedicated to helping homeless and those in need.

"We ask people to be very cautious when engaging with someone on the streets. You never want to give money,” said Egerton.

The proposed new rules say people can't use these medians, crosswalks or roadways to get items.

The other ordinance addresses aggressive behavior.

It references that courts have applied "sign" rules related to panhandling as First Amendment rights.

"That's America, you're supposed to have First Amendment rights, but there's a difference in expressing your First Amendment rights and creating a traffic hazard," said Egerton.

We spoke to one man holding a sign along Kellogg who said he's doing it because he can't work but supports the city doing what it needs to for safety.

Wichita police will present this to council citing a 15 percent increase in crashes involving vehicles and people.

"I'm for the program, I'm for what the city is doing, I think it's a safety hazard and it creates an image that is not in the best interest of the people that we serve."

The city sent a statement saying it's an "effort to reduce unsafe activities in certain areas of the community."

They didn't answer when asked if this was made to address panhandling.

The roads this would impact include main traffic ways, roads in congested areas of downtown and roads with speeds above 40 miles per hour.