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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Fair
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MAD TALK

Mayor Soglin cracks down on panhandling downtown

Rummel: 'We're at a low ebb of problem behaviors.'
Rummel: 'We're at a low ebb of problem behaviors.'
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Paul doesn't seem to fit the stereotype of panhandlers.

He sits on the terrace off of the Capitol Square with his small white poodle reading a Michael Crichton novel. Propped next to him are cardboard signs that read: "Need to feed one son, one wife and a dog. Please help. God bless. Will take food."

Paul - who wouldn't give his last name - says he has a job working at a fast-food restaurant but panhandles sporadically to help make ends meet. His wife is disabled, and the family had a medical emergency recently that set them back. He's saving to move them to Georgia, where his wife's family lives.

"I try to be as unobtrusive as possible," he says of his approach. "I read a book, pet my dog, and let people come to me, rather than jump out at people."

Panhandling is ubiquitous in the downtown area, even though it's illegal in most places. On State Street, it's only legal in the 500 block.

Mayor Paul Soglin thinks that's one place too many. He's proposed revising the ordinance to make it illegal anywhere within 150 feet of a business that sells alcohol, putting most of central downtown off limits. (Eliminating it citywide would likely run afoul of the Constitution.)

Soglin says some panhandlers harass people downtown and many spend the money on booze, causing more problems. "Some amount of what's received, which is significant, is clearly going for alcohol," the mayor says.

The Paul who was asking for help on the Square last week agrees a lot of panhandlers use the money on booze, but not all of them. While speaking to an Isthmus reporter, a woman approaches Paul and tells him to call 211, the number for United Way of Dane County, and also suggests other agencies that might help. He thanks her. After she leaves, he says he's tried all of those resources, but adds that none of them could help.

"Those places have either given all the help they can give or they aren't the right places to help a family."

Ald. Marsha Rummel doesn't understand the need to change the law. "Having worked on State Street since 1989, I'd say we're at a low ebb of problem behaviors," she says. "Do we want to scrub it down and shine it up? It's a city, and all kinds of people use our streets."

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