Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – An ordinance aimed at curbing loitering and other acts that might make people feel uncomfortable in public places in the unincorporated areas of Lexington County is slowly working its way through county council. Unincorporated areas are all those that aren't in a town or city. The ordinance, which has already had one reading, is being refined so that everyone understands for sure what is prohibited and who will carry out the ordinance's enforcement. They are also finalizing how the fines will be imposed once those penalties are set.
The ordinance was introduced by Lexington County Councilman Bobby Keisler of the Red Bank area. He did so after he said he was approached by many citizens of the area who repeatedly complained about people hanging around aimlessly near businesses. In many cases, these individuals were panhandling for money and it was making others feel very uncomfortable to be asked over and over again for handouts. Much of what’s in the draft ordinance is already illegal; however, the anti-loitering ordinance just gives law enforcement officers one more tool should they need it. If someone repeatedly behaves in ways that would become an annoyance to the community, this ordinance could come into play.
The draft defines loitering as remaining idle in essentially one location, spending time idly, or loafing, or walking around aimlessly in a public place. This would include vacant lots or the private property of someone else that is unattended. Additionally, you would be loitering if you are creating a disturbance and being an annoyance to the comfort of others. People would also be loitering if they create a danger to the breach of the peace or obstruct or hinder the free passage of vehicles or people. They also cannot obstruct or interfere with any person that is in any public space, engage in begging or panhandling, gamble, prostitution, or engage in any business, trade, or commercial transaction unless they are specifically authorized or licensed to do so. This could prevent people from saying they’re a skilled craftsman and then doing sub-standard work while trying to scam someone. In addition to these activities, the person could not use or possess unlawful drugs or have beverages like beer, wine, or alcohol on them.
If someone is believed to be loitering, there’s plenty of room for discretion on the part of law enforcement. First, an officer can just ask that the offender move along. If the person refuses to leave after being ordered to do so by a law enforcement officer, they could be subject to a fine that the council has yet to determine. None of this section would apply to anyone who is exercising his constitutional right to religious expression, freedom of speech, or freedom to associate with any group or organization he chooses.
Keisler said recently that this is in no way a war on poverty, the poor, or even the addicted. “The people of Lexington County have always been some of the most generous people I’ve ever been around. When anyone needs help, they give. Often, even the folks with the least, poor people themselves, want to do something to help when there’s a need. People just want the opportunity to give in their own way, making their own choice, by donating to their church, through the area’s many food banks, to the Red Cross, a veteran’s organization, or personally selecting someone to assist. They give their money and their time generously,” he said. “People just don’t want to be confronted by people in or outside a store or on the streets. Lexington County has lots of places for people who are struggling to get help. If these people really want to help themselves or have a better life, the help is out there for them,” Keisler continued. “LRADAC, the area’s addiction treatment center is right down the road in my district. They can offer help with addiction if you really want it. The South Lexington Emergency Food Pantry is right across the street from the high school. If you’re hungry they’ll offer you food. Help is out there.”
Keisler said he had heard from legitimate business owners that complain that customers avoid their stores if these types of people are just loitering about. “Some of these people just hang around; They look and smell drunk, high, they're dirty, and some can be very intimidating. They often frighten people’s children which can make you choose another store for your business,” Keisler said. He cited one case where a man begs from cars stopped at a stop light daily within one hundred yards of an emergency food pantry. The man always carries a sign that says he’s hungry and a veteran, but people have reported being rebuked when they offered him food instead of money. “As Lexington County becomes less rural, we need something like this in place before the problem gets out of hand,” Keisler said. Keisler served in the military before coming to the area he represents and opening a business decades ago.
He also acknowledged that as the county grows, he believes that we will see the homeless, addicted, and hurting population grow and believes that it's a problem we should address soon. "When I moved here in the late 60's, I never thought we'd have to think about these types of things, but the county is changing and growing every day. I hope that some of the leaders of our churches, civic organizations, the governments, existing groups that provide aid for the poor and homeless, and people who care about those issues strongly, will begin to come together and talk about what we can do long before we have a big problem with homelessness and all the issues that go along with that situation."
Once the final changes are made to the loitering ordinance, it will go through another reading before becoming a law. Keisler said Monday that it may be a few more months before the refined ordinance becomes law.