Panhandling generic

READING, Pa. – The Reading City Council on Tuesday agreed to form a task force to further discuss issues of panhandling before it considers an ordinance to address the problem.

At a Feb. 1 meeting, Councilwoman Donna Reed introduced a proposed ordinance to establish rules and penalties for panhandling.

After hearing some pushback from community members, Reed said she was prepared to withdraw the proposed ordinance at Tuesday's committee of the whole meeting.

"If this is insulting to people who have challenges or if people feel it's too heavy-handed or punitive," she said, "I would be happy to withdraw it."

Councilwoman Lucine Sihelnik and other councilmembers urged Reed not to withdraw the proposed legislation.

"Perhaps there should be a task force," Sihelnik said. "All I am hearing are that there are multiple components and there's not one solution. It's not a problem that we can ignore. We just need to take a couple of steps back and try to work on these issues together."

Reed said she introduced the ordinance as a means to providing help to those in need.

"One of the forefront things of this was to be a help," Reed said of the ordinance. "If we want a vibrant downtown, we have to help these people. It's not being prejudiced against people who are down on their luck, but intended to be helpful."

The proposed ordinance is based on laws in place in Lancaster and Harrisburg. Its intent is to provide the police department with an additional tool to address aggressive panhandling and enable officers to assess the need to involve social service resources.

Police Chief Richard Tornielli said his officers need such an ordinance.

"We need something to help us deal with these issues," he said. "When we need to get someone assistance, it just doesn't happen. We need a plan on how we can assist these individuals."

Councilwoman Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz said a task force could give city officials the opportunity to meet with experts in the social services field to make sure a plan is viable.

"We have an abundance of community-based social agencies," she said. "It's our obligation to at least try and tackle the issue and try to get these people to seek help. We're not experts on how to assess a situation, but we do have experts in our community who could help us."

Council President Jeffrey Waltman said addressing panhandling is a challenging subject.

"My concern with this all along is that [doing] more gets us in trouble sometimes," he said. "We can't punish the people who really need help."

"To take away people's rights to ask for help isn't necessarily the solution," Waltman added. He said of the ordinance, "The spirit is good, but maybe we just need to step back and see if it's not an ordinance that we need, but a collaboration."

Waltman agreed with the need to form a task force, but he advised his fellow council members to work with Mayor Eddie Moran to be sure the administration is supportive.

"We should look to strengthen the existing ordinances first," he said, "but I like the idea of us becoming a gateway to social services."

Reed did not request to withdraw the proposed ordinance, which makes unclear what the status of the proposed legislation will be on upcoming council agendas.

The council was originally scheduled to hold a committee of the whole meeting on Feb. 17 to discuss the ordinance, but agreed to cancel it, saying it was not necessary at this time.

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