City removes popular panhandling median strip

The city of Portland removed a popular panhandling median at the corner of Congress and St/ John's Streets this week. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The city of Portland removed a popular panhandling median at the corner of Congress and St. John streets this week. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Motorists approaching downtown Portland via outer Congress Street will no longer be asked for money by panhandlers in the median strip at the corner of St. John Street. The city removed the median — curb, flowers, sign and all — earlier this week. The three-lane roadway is now paved flat in the middle.

However, BDN Portland reader Patrick Ledwith posted a photo on Facebook this morning, taken just before 8:30 a.m., showing a woman panhandling in the middle of the street, notwithstanding the lack of a median strip.

A woman panhandles in the middle of Congress Street Friday morning. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ledwith

A woman panhandles in the middle of Congress Street Friday morning. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ledwith

Despite Portland’s public legal battle to keep panhandlers out of the medians, which it lost in a federal appeals court last year, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the removal of the median had nothing to do with panhandlers.

“When the Department of Public Works re-striped the Congress Street inbound approach at St. John last year to accommodate a bike lane, the through lane was rather pinched up against the median (literally about 9.75 feet),” she said in an email. “As a result … we added removal of the median to the work plan to better adjust the lane geometry and alignments.”

The corner was a popular and visible location for panhandlers who often waited in line for their turn or slept in the grass behind a picket fence nearby. The scene greeted thousands of motorists a day as they approached the city’s downtown.

A man, who did not want to give his name, asks for spare change in the median strip at St. John Street and Congress Street in  Portland in 2013. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A man, who did not want to give his name, asks for spare change in the median strip at St. John Street and Congress Street in Portland in 2013. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

American Civil Liberties Union of Maine attorney Zach Heiden, who helped fight and win the court case against the city, told BDN Portland it was hard to make a comment on the situation without seeing the corner as it stands now. But he thought panhandlers would just go elsewhere.

“As a result, there may be more panhandlers directed to the Old Port,” Heiden said.

It’s unclear whether the city plans to paint a narrow island or adjust the three painted lanes, plus the bike lane. Heiden said he thought a painted median would still be a legal place to ask for money.

In general, he hoped the city’s move was not directed at the panhandling situation.

“The city shouldn’t be taking out medians and interfering with people’s right to express themselves,” he said.

Last September, a federal court struck down a city law that banned standing, sitting, staying, driving or parking in the city’s median strips. The ordinance was seen largely as an attempt to curb panhandling in the medians, though the city had argued it was for safety reasons.

U.S. First Circuit Court Judge David J. Barron wrote in his decision that Portland’s ordinance violated the First Amendment right to free speech “because it indiscriminately bans virtually all expressive activity in all of the city’s median strips and thus is not narrowly tailored to serve the city’s interest in protecting public safety.”

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Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.