Concord considers limits on panhandling
A man who calls himself Homer panhandles outside Market Basket in Concord on Thursday, May 31, 2012. Homer says, "All I need is $18 so I can refill the cartridge on my inhaler for my emphysema. This is miserable but I still try to keep a happy face." Homer's sign reads, "Gulf Vet, Please Help". Homer says he has applied for several jobs, including at Burger King and Walmart, but says no one will hire him because his only job experience is working as a tree farmer. (AMANDA STEEN / Monitor file) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
A man who calls himself Homer panhandles outside Market Basket on Thursday, May 31, 2012. Homer says, "All I need is $18.00 so I can refill the cartridge on my inhaler for my emphysema. This is miserable but I still try to keep a happy face." Homer's sign reads, "Gulf Vet, Please Help". Homer says he has applied for several jobs, including Burger King and Walmart, but says no one will hire him because his only job experience is working as a tree farmer. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
A proposed city ordinance could limit panhandling, which the Concord police say has increased in recent months. While officials say the ordinance would address citizen complaints and improve public safety, homeless and civil rights advocates have expressed concern.
Under the proposed ordinance, panhandlers would be unable to solicit money from people who are in their cars, inside bus stops and parking garages, or near banks and ATMs. It would also prohibit panhandling “in an aggressive manner,” such as touching, following or intimidating people to solicit money. The ordinance, written by the city’s legal department, will go before the city council next month.
“I certainly am very sensitive to the . . . needs of homeless citizens here in Concord, but this proposed ordinance is not looking to address the issue of homeless or disadvantaged citizens soliciting funds,” said Ward 4 City Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton. “This ordinance is trying to address the issue of overly aggressive panhandling.”
But an ordinance could “inadvertently criminalize poverty,” said Maggie Fogarty, a Concord-based advocate for the American Friends Service Committee. Fogarty said she plans to discuss the issue with attorneys and fellow board members for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.
“I do approach this with some real concern that some unintentional harm could be done,” Fogarty said. “We need to approach this issue very cautiously so that we don’t inadvertently discriminate against people simply for being poor.”
Barbara Keshen, an attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said panhandling is protected under the First Amendment. She is working with other attorneys to analyze the proposed ordinance and plans to speak against it at the February city council meeting.
“There has to be other ways that a mature and compassionate society deals with people in need,” Keshen said.
Concord police Chief John Duval said he’s seen an increase in panhandling in the past year, and his department has received numerous complaints.
Most panhandlers stand at Exit 14 off Interstate 93, Fort Eddy Road, Storrs Street, Main Street or Steeplegate Mall, he said.
Sometimes residents complain of panhandlers causing verbal confrontations, Duval said, but he’s also concerned about safety when a panhandler stands in a median or next to the side of the road.
“So it’s kind of a multi-pronged issue when you talk about public safety,” he said. “It’s not just person-on-person but it’s also traffic situations.”
Grady Sexton is chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety Board, which recommended in December that the legal department present an ordinance to the city council on this issue.
She said residents often complain about panhandlers who stand near ATMs or in parking garages.
“I’ve also heard of cars stopping very quickly to give money to people who are panhandling and almost causing accidents,” she said.
Fogarty said there may be more positive ways to address safety issues, and she questioned whether concerns over harassment or traffic could be addressed in other ways.
“Yes, it is upsetting to be asked for money, and I do think that this is happening more frequently than say it was a year ago, but I don’t see Concord as having an extreme issue with panhandling,” Fogarty said. “So we need to make sure that, even though something can be upsetting or unnerving, that we don’t overreact with a response in terms of an ordinance when there might be other approaches we can take.”
Duval acknowledged that the ordinance could eliminate most panhandling in Concord, because panhandlers typically solicit donations from motorists.
It would also apply to volunteers who solicit money for charity, Duval said.
Firefighters would not be permitted to stand along the road and fill their boots with donations. Others, such as Salvation Army holiday volunteers, could continue standing on sidewalks or outside private businesses under the ordinance.
If the city council passes the ordinance, Duval said his department would begin issuing warnings and providing panhandlers with a list of places to find food, shelter, clothing and medical care. The ordinance calls for a $75 fine for a first offense and $150 for a second violation. If convicted three times in one year, a panhandler would be fined between $250 and $500 and would spend up to 90 days in jail.
Duval said some panhandling practices have raised alarm in the past year; he’s seen or received reports of panhandlers changing shifts, arriving in vehicles with out-of-state license plates and activating crosswalk signals to make vehicles stop.
“That’s not to say that we don’t have our local individuals who may in fact be homeless who are panhandling as well,” he said.
Keshen said she walks around Concord every day, and has never witnessed or heard complaints of aggressive panhandling. There are already laws that protect people from threatening and harassment, she said.
“Is this a real problem, or is it a solution in search of a problem?” Keshen said.
The police already attempt to remove panhandlers from medians where they could easily be hit by cars, and respond to complaints of disorderly conduct, Duval said.
But he called those efforts “a Band-Aid solution;” panhandlers return as soon as the police leave.
Duval believes Concord has an active network of resources for those in need, and he worries that panhandlers seek cash to purchase drugs and alcohol.
“Sometimes the best way to help people who are in need is to reach out to the organizations that provide a more systematic approach to helping people,” he said.
Fogarty said she does not encourage panhandling, nor does she encourage donating to panhandlers. But she does worry the ordinance will “illegalize a behavior simply because it makes us uncomfortable.”
It doesn’t address the issues behind panhandling she said, such as unaffordable housing and low wages.
“So I don’t want us to distract ourselves from the core problem, and our creative and intellectual and other resources need to go into constructive solutions,” she said.
The city is also working on a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Mayor Jim Bouley appointed a steering committee last week, and Fogarty will serve with that group.
Grady Sexton, Fogarty and other city officials plan to meet next week to discuss panhandling. They share a “mutual interest” in helping Concord’s homeless population, Grady Sexton said.
“So I’m optimistic that we can have a constructive process and some mutual learning because this is new turf for Concord,” Fogarty said
The city council is scheduled to hold a public hearing about the proposed panhandling ordinance Feb. 11.