No easy so­lu­tion to pan­han­dling is­sue, of­fi­cials say

Newark Post - - LOCAL NEWS - By JES­SICA IAN­NETTA jian­netta@ches­pub.com

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.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JES­SICA IAN­NETTA

Delaware State Po­lice Mas­ter Cpl. Mike Austin talks to mem­bers of the Greater Ne­wark Civic Al­liance about pan­han­dling Aug. 30.

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