The Murfreesboro City Council is looking for ways to curb an increasing number of people who stand along the city's roads soliciting money from people passing.
People who solicit money for their personal use are often referred to as panhandlers.
“The problem has increased to the point now that we have panhandlers competing for turf,” Murfreesboro City Councilman Eddie Smotherman said. “We certainly need to find a better option and maybe it is just an enforcement of the rules we currently have.”
According to a letter to the city council from Murfreesboro City Attorney Susan McGannon, there are already at least three existing city ordinances that address panhandling.
One of them prohibits someone from doing anything that blocks a street or sidewalk in a way that interrupts with the free use of the public.
Another ordinance prohibits pedestrians from walking along or upon a roadway when a sidewalk is provided.
Finally, Murfreesboro has an ordinance that prohibits people from standing on a highway for the purpose of soliciting contributions or employment from the occupant of any vehicle.
But the letter pointed out that no city citations have been issued based on the existing ordinances.
Councilman Smotherman wants officers to start enforcing those ordinances.
“Our biggest concern truly is the driver of the vehicle not having his focus on the intersection and the person going into the road taking their lives into their own hands,” he said. “If we can get this addressed and stop it where it is we will have done a service for the community.”
Murfreesboro's City Council discussed the city attorney's findings at its meeting Thursday.
Smotherman said the council will likely not enact new ordinances dealing with panhandling until after a federal lawsuit against the city of Brentwood is completed.
Brentwood attempted to ban the sale of newspapers, like The Contributor, on sidewalks and to regulate conduct on its sidewalks. That led to a federal lawsuit against the city alleging that the restrictions violated the First Amendment.
McGannon pointed out in her letter to the city council, “it appears that the more common approach of more recent cases is to classify [soliciting money] as speech entitled to First Amendment protection.”
A woman asking for donations on Old Fort Parkway told Nashville's News 2 she had little other choice but to panhandle to support her family.
Jennifer, who is not homeless, cares for her niece and nephew. Her boyfriend is incarcerated. He was the primary income provider to the household.
“I have tried to get help everywhere else but they have told me they are out of funds for everything,” she said. “I had surgery on my leg and I shouldn't be out here because it is swelling up.”
She continued, “But I got to do what I got to do.”
Jennifer said the people in Murfreesboro are very generous.
“The people here in Murfreesboro have been wonderful,” she said. “They have helped me with money, food and stuff like that. I have been very thankful for that.”
Councilman Smotherman said that generosity is part of the reason why more panhandlers are choosing Murfreesboro.
“The kindness and goodness and generosity of the people of Murfreesboro is phenomenal,” he said.
But he said the city's lack of enforcement has made it a prime target of panhandlers who are not really in need.
“We have never had the amount of people on the street corners soliciting help as we currently have,” he said. “The problem is we have people out on the street corner trying to collect money and it has nothing to do with being in need in many cases it has become a job for them.”
Panhandlers can also face misdemeanor charges at the state level if they obstruct a highway, street, or sidewalk intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.