No easy solution to panhandling issue, officials say
Panhandling may be a nuisance for drivers and an annoyance for police who would rather deploy their resources elsewhere, but it’s also — in most cases — perfectly legal.
And that makes trying to reduce panhandling in the Newark area a particularly difficult task, though not one that local groups are necessarily shying away from. Last week, the Greater Newark Civic Alliance made the topic of panhandling the main focus of its quarterly meeting, held Aug. 30 at the Newark Free Library.
Stephanie Rizzo, one of the alliance’s organizers, decided to make panhandling the focus of the meeting after noticing the amount of discussion the topic had generated on NextDoor, a social media site that allows neighbors to connect with each other online.
Since much of the panhandling takes place on stateowned roads, Rizzo invited the Delaware State Police to attend the meeting. Rizzo also invited the Rick Vanstory Resource Center in Wilmington to send a representative in order to better understand the perspective of the homeless but no one was able to attend, she said. State Rep. Ed Osienski (DNewark), who chairs the legislative’s transportation committee, was also in attendance along with about a dozen community members.
The issue of panhandling is a multifaceted one, those present agreed, with no easy solutions. Police are limited in what they can do to stop panhandlers, many of whom have mental health issues or struggle with substance abuse, and need to work with both local nonprofits and the public in general to curb the problem.
“We are concerned about it because it is quality of life for our constituents,” said DSP Master Cpl. Mike Austin, “but it also does eat up resources on the state police side for other things we could be doing and that’s an issue for us.”
Austin, a member of the community outreach unit, came to the meeting on behalf of Troop 2 and Troop 6, which together cover much of the greater Newark area. Austin told the group that panhandling presents a challenge, since what an officer can do depends greatly on what exactly the person is doing and where they’re doing it.
“Unfortunately, most of the time with roadway situations, it is a traffic offense,” Austin said. “There just isn’t that much teeth to that offense when it goes to the courts.”
The punishment for a traffic violation is usually a fine. Sometimes the individual makes enough money panhandling to pay the fine. But even when they don’t, courts don’t incarcerate people over unpaid traffic tickets, Austin noted.
Police can try to charge a panhandler criminally, particularly if he or she is being overly aggressive, Austin said. That criminal charge then sends the case to the Court of Common Pleas, where the individual can be ordered into court-mandated treatment for mental health issues, substance abuse or other problems, he said.
Sometimes, police can also get a no-contact order, where a person is prohibited from setting foot on a property. If the person is found on those properties, he or she can be arrested for breach of release, which can sometimes result in jail time, Austin said.
All in all, according to statistics provided by Troop 6, an average of 30 arrests, both criminal and traffic, are made each week for panhandling, he added.
DSP also works with Vanstory and other local nonprofits to try to connect those who are panhandling with available resources. That includes one initiative by Troop 6 that included handing out free lunches and connecting panhandlers with job placement resources and available shelters. However, the majority of the people either refused the help or never followed through.
“We’ve killed a forest of trees handing out pamphlets and cards and resource information to them,” Austin said. “The reality is that they don’t want help because there’s some structure to the shelters, structure to the treatment facilities. They have to be compliant with the programs and they don’t want that. Especially when it’s easy and you can just ask and get free money.”
Osienski agreed and noted that both and he and DSP are working the Delaware Department of Transportation on putting up signs at especially problematic spots that encourage motorists not to give to panhandlers. DelDOT understands that panhandling quickly becomes a traffic issue when motorists stop for — or try to avoid — panhandlers but is also reluctant to get involved, he said.
Because panhandling is considered legally-protected free speech, DelDOT would need to be careful about how the signs are worded, Osienski said. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued towns and counties that made anti-panhandling laws that were too vague or overarching, he added.
Austin agreed, adding that there are portions of the current loitering code that have already been deemed unconstitutional by the Delaware attorney general.
In addition, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between panhandlers and nonprofits that occasionally ask drivers for donations, Osienski said.
“How can we say the homeless can’t be out there at that intersection panhandling when we’re allowing the New Castle volunteer firefighters out there?” he said.
However, Osienksi said his next step will be to meet with members of local shelters and other organizations to learn about what services are available, where the gaps may be and what they think should be done about the panhandling issue.
Several people in attendance suggested solutions that have worked well in other cities, such as a program used in several cities that gives panhandlers vouchers for food or shelter instead of money. Other cities have transformed parking meters into donation stations, with the money going to local homeless shelters. All agreed that a public information campaign of sorts is needed.
As solutions are explored, Austin encouraged people to continue calling police to report panhandlers. If the panhandling is ongoing, Austin said drivers can call 911, noting that the dispatchers know how to triage calls. It’s important that callers give good, detailed descriptions and allow police to contact them for follow-up questions, he said.
But above all, Austin said people shouldn’t give panhandlers money.
“They wouldn’t be out there if they weren’t getting money — and a substantial amount of money,” he said.
Delaware State Police Master Cpl. Mike Austin talks to members of the Greater Newark Civic Alliance about panhandling Aug. 30.