After ordinance, panhandling declines in Concord
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.
It’s been two months since the Concord City Council placed limits on panhandling near roads and intersections, and the police haven’t charged anyone with a violation. But busy intersections and highway exits aren’t as crowded with people asking for cash.
It’s now illegal to receive an item from a person who’s inside a car. That’s “a point in time” that the police can’t always spot, said police Chief John Duval. He attributes the decline in panhandling to officers’ conversations with people who are “flying signs,” even though that behavior is permitted.
The police have issued just one warning to a panhandler spotted receiving money, Duval said, though officers don’t track the number of people they tell about the new ordinance.
“It’s the message to my staff: If you’re able to, and the time permits, there’s nothing that says you can’t stop and educate the person,” Duval said.
The ordinance hasn’t halted all panhandling, though. At noon Monday, one man stood at the corner of Loudon and Fort Eddy roads. He said he knows “all about” the new ordinance.
The man, who declined to give his name, received donations from two people within 10 minutes. He said he’s homeless, camps outside and uses money earned panhandling to buy batteries or other supplies for his campsite.
He usually makes $5 to $10 in several hours – “It depends on the day,” he said. In the past few months, he’s had to spend more time standing with his sign to earn the same amount. Fewer people pass spare change or dollar bills from their car windows since the ordinance passed.
To him, it’s worth the risk.
“You can stand out here as long as you want, but if they see you taking money, they’ll fine you $500 bucks,” the man said.
He’s right – the ordinance only bans the action of taking donations and only penalizes the person receiving the money. The violation-level offense comes with a maximum fine of $500, though city officials have said that judges typically base penalties on a person’s ability to pay.
The distinction between asking for money and actually receiving donations was a compromise, after opponents of an earlier draft argued that banning panhandling would violate First Amendment rights to free speech. The city council passed the ordinance in May.
Duval said the ordinance is effective because it limits the dangerous behaviors of standing along busy roads or holding up traffic to receive money. But, he acknowledged, it’s difficult to enforce.
“If you want to see if somebody is willingly violating the law, then you have to observe in a way that you’re not being detected,” Duval said. “So staffing levels would be tied closely to our ability to do that, and then we have to prioritize how we shift resources. It makes no sense to assign resources on a continual basis for this issue when there are other more pressing higher levels of safety concern issues elsewhere in the city that demand a police response or presence.”
Still, Duval said, the ordinance is working. He’s also developed a working relationship with advocates for the homeless and asked them to spread the word about the new panhandling limits.
At the Concord Homeless Resource Center on South State Street, Director Marcia Sprague keeps a bulletin board with information about panhandling.
Duval has “been really good at keeping me in the loop,” Sprague said. “I really do appreciate that, because then I can inform the folks that come to the resource center what’s going on.”
Sprague said she hasn’t heard many people at the center talk about the ordinance, but some have said that not many of them have tried panhandling since it passed.
But the man standing on Fort Eddy Road in the midday heat Monday said it would take a lot to make him put away his own sign. He’ll stay there in his baseball cap, hands trembling with the sign extended in front of him, “until I get too hot.”