TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

With TRO in effect, protesters hit the road to oppose panhandling ordinance

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The Cranston Action Network (CAN) wasted no time making panhandling the crux of its protest last Thursday, occupying the intersections of Pontiac Avenue, Park Avenue and Rolfe Street to solicit donations.

After U.S. District Court Chief Judge William Smith handed down a temporary restraining order against the ordinance, CAN took to the streets.

George Hanley, one of about 25 protesters in attendance, said the aim of the protest was simple: He thinks Cranston residents don’t agree with the case going forward. Hanley cited a recent case where, according to a June 28 article in the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, Worcester was forced to pay the ACLU $475,000 after local panhandling ordinances were struck down.

“I think it’s to help show that the Cranstonians don't want Mayor [Allan] Fung to keep going with this lawsuit,” Hanley said. “Each step is going to cost the city a couple hundred thousand [dollars]. Why Cranston would be going ahead with this suit is really unbelievable to me. With that kind of money you could start funding for a housing program in Cranston, you can start getting people off the street.”

CAN held its protest shortly before a special City Council meeting held almost entirely behind closed doors in executive session. Council President Michael Farina said last week that the meeting was called for lawyers to brief the Council on the case’s next steps.

Farina reiterated that in a statement to the Herald this week, adding that he believes most of the city backs the ordinance.

“The same group of people that were initially against the law came out and again voiced their concerns with a protest,” Farina said in an email on Monday. “I am sure the people against this law will continue to be vocal, and the many constituents who are for the law, which is the majority of Cranston, will continue to support it. We will be in constant contact with our legal team and make decisions in the best interest of our city as a whole.”

The Network gathered just outside of City Hall at 5:30 p.m. before grabbing their signs and dispersing into the streets. John Patrick Donegan, one of the protest’s organizers, was standing along Pontiac collecting donations that would be split amongst the Rhode Island ACLU and House of Hope CDC.

There were a couple of Cranston police cars on the scene, but Major Todd Patalano said that is status quo for any peaceful protests. He said no arrests were made and the department never expected to make any.

“We received info there would be a protest and, as usual, when there’s increased presence of any type of protest we provide a police officer to stand by at that location. We expected it to be peaceful,” Patalano said Tuesday. “There was no problem.”

Donegan has been passionately against the ordinance for months. He said that if he had a chance to sit down with Mayor Fung to discuss the issues at hand, he would tell him he can understand why people are “uncomfortable with panhandlers.”

However, he had some strong words about the constitutionality of the ordinance.

“I think treating it the way he has is both unconstitutional, it’s a direct attack on their First Amendment rights and, in a moral sense, I’ve lived in Cranston for all 27 years of my life…and I’ve never been more ashamed to call myself a Cranstonian,” Donegan said. “I think we should treat all others with the respect and kindness that they deserve. This fails to do this on every level.”

Melissa LaCroix-Dwyer, outreach case manager at House of Hope CDC, also felt that the ordinance infringes upon First Amendment rights. She, like Hanley, believes an increase in affordable housing can alleviate panhandling better than the ordinance.

“People need housing,” Hanley said. “It allows people to receive services, it allows people to make appointments because they have a place to live. It just stabilizes the whole life.”

“As a Cranston resident, I pay taxes in this city, but I’d much rather pay the taxes and stand up for what is right and what really is just a core value of society, to help those in need,” LaCroix-Dwyer said. “This isn’t a thing against Mayor Fung, or the City of Cranston, it’s just standing up for what is fundamentally right. It needs to be done.”

Mayor Fung responded Tuesday afternoon to the concern of affordable housing, saying in a statement that the city already has initiatives in place and is working on developing more.

“Cranston has several programs to address the affordable housing issue, from the successful first-time homebuyer program run out of our CDBG (community development block grants) office to our collaboration with CCAP (Cranston Community Action Program) to address the issue of housing insecurity in general.

“The city supported CCAP in applying for a Working Cities Challenge Grant to reduce economic and educational disparities in our diverse community,” Fung continued. “The city has programs targeted to benefit low-income residents for housing rehabilitation, emergency fuel assistance, outreach health programs, adult day care, closing cost assistance program, down payment assistance program and more.”

Once the protesters moved inside, after raising just over $30 in donations, they flooded the Council gallery with signs still in hand. Citywide Councilor John Lanni Jr. inquired about possible public comment, but Farina said that the Council was only there for an update from attorneys and not a hearing.

He added Tuesday that, in at least the past eight years, there had never been public comment during an executive session.

The Council voted down party lines, 5-3 with Ward 3’s Paul Archetto absent, to move into executive session. As Ward 1’s Steve Stycos crossed in front of the gallery on his way to the exit, he thanked the protesters in attendance.

“I’m glad people are watching the Council and letting us know we will be accountable for the votes we take and money we spend,” Stycos said in an e-mail statement to the Herald on Monday.

LaCroix-Dwyer has been watching the Council’s moves since the ordinance was passed earlier this year. She said, echoing Chief Judge William Smith’s decision imposing the TRO, that she fails to see data that shows a connection between panhandling and accidents.

“I do feel this is truly based from a place of misunderstanding and fear, and just try to encourage him to have compassion and see it for what it is and do the right thing and use the money in an appropriate way that could really do some good,” LaCroix-Dwyer said when asked when she would say to Mayor Fung if she had the opportunity to sit with him.

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JustBeWell

Mr. Donegan contemplates "If he had a chance to sit down with Mayor Fung to discuss the issues at hand, he would tell him he can understand why people are “uncomfortable with panhandlers.”

From my own recent personal experience with the mayor's office, despite publicity statements saying that 'the mayor is interested in hearing what constituents have to say,' actually quite the opposite is the case with our current mayor and future governor. After many, many unanswered emails and letters bringing to the mayor's attention a 40 year-long paving problem on Narragansett Blvd., I personally visited the mayor's office a few months ago hoping to make a future appointment.

Whereupon two of the mayors aides spoke to me, promised to call me the following week, and ushered me politely out the door. They, nor the mayor, ever called me as promised. The truth is our mayor is walking carefully not to disrupt his gubernatorial run. OK, I get it, everybody wants a promotion. But Mr. Donegan is mistaken if he thinks the mayor is ever going to sit down with him. Heck, even President Obama made time to have a beer in the Rose Garden with a Cambridge police officer, even if it was just for the cameras.

Friday, August 18