Iowa City Proposes Ordinance Aimed at Homeless Downtown

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Downtown Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus can be seen in this photo taken from the top of the Plaza Towers building Wednesday, June 15, 2011 in Iowa City. The UI and the City of Iowa City have been working together on a variety of projects and have make improvements to their relationship over the last few years. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Restrictions on panhandling, where and when people can lie down and storing personal items are among the actions Iowa City may take to address growing complaints about inappropriate behavior downtown.

While the rules would apply to everyone, they are aimed at a small number of people who mostly identify themselves as homeless and gather on the Pedestrian Mall. Vulgar language, taking up space for extended periods and panhandling are among the concerns.

As The Gazette reported last week, business owners and city officials say the situation is worsening to the detriment of businesses the atmosphere in a vital section of the city.

“I think these behaviors have started to push the limits of what our community finds acceptable,” City Manager Tom Markus said Thursday.

An ordinance that would apply to the Ped Mall and downtown sidewalks will go before the City Council Aug. 20. It takes on the issue in multiple ways.

First, it would prohibit being in and lying on planters – the raised platforms that hold plant life – as well as sitting on those not designed for that purpose. People who lounge on the planters damage them and restrict the walkway, Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager, wrote in a memorandum Thursday.

It also would be against the law to lie on a bench between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., an effort to keep those spots open during the day for as many people as possible.

The ordinance also would ban the storage of personal items in public space on the Ped Mall and the use of large shopping carts. There would be exceptions for things like strollers, wheelchairs, permitted events and when the items are kept for less than two hours and take up less than 4 square feet. People would have to be within 20 feet of their property.

Another provision would prohibit the use of public electrical outlets unless the city gives its OK. The Gazette interviewed a homeless man last week who said he plugs a TV into a Ped Mall outlet and watches movies.

The ordinance would further restrict panhandling – which is already banned within a certain distance of buildings, ATMs and other features – by making it illegal to solicit money on sidewalks where parking meters are present. This would prevent people from being asked for money as they have their wallets or purses open to pay a meter, Fruin wrote.

Panhandling also would be banned at the three public entrances to the Ped Mall at Linn, Clinton and Dubuque streets.

A violation of the ordinance would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $65 fine. The Police Department is working on creating a program that would allow some offenders to perform community service instead of paying a fine, Fruin wrote.

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