MERIDEN — The city is looking at ways to curb a perceived rise in panhandling.
City Manager Tim Coon has asked the Law Department to examine what ordinances, if any, the city can adopt to address panhandling. Past court decisions, including a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, have made it “crystal clear” that panhandling cannot be banned by municipalities because asking for money is protected as free speech, Coon said.
The city, however, could create an ordinance addressing “aggressive” panhandling or panhandling that poses traffic safety risks.
The city currently has adopted ordinances for “soliciting” and “peddling” but doesn’t have a panhandling ordinance, according to Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn.
The goal, Coon said, is not to ban panhandling but develop “common sense” ordinances “to deal wth the behavior associated with (panhandling) so that the city doesn’t become a magnet for panhandling.”
“The city has a right to control its public spaces is really what it comes down to,” Coon said. “And when you give up that right, other actors will move into that public space, so if we control it it's better for everybody.”
While the city doesn’t track data on panhandling, he and others have noticed an “anecdotal” increase in panhandlers this year, particularly at the intersection of Broad and East Main Street and near the highway ramps along East Main Street.
“We have to help these people,” Coon said about panhandlers, the majority of which he says are homeless, “and in the process, we deal with a problem that is concerning to a lot of people.”
Some City Hall employees, Coon said, have reported being accosted by panhandlers. In other cases, the panhandlers stand close enough to the road that it poses a safety risk. In particular, panhandlers often stand along the Monument Boulevard along Broad Street, which is a “thin strip on a very busy intersection and certainly there is the potential for accidents to occur,” Quinn said.
“To the extent that someone panhandling creates a safety issue, that's something you could look at,” Quinn said about potential ordinances.
Coon and other top city staff recently took part in a webinar covering how municipalities can address panhandling. Coon presented key points from the webinar this week to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. The webinar was put on by Lead Homelessness, a homeless advocacy group based in Florida.
In addition to adopting ordinances, Coon said the city also needs to work closely with local nonprofits to develop long-term solutions for homelessness, which he called the root of most panhandling.
“The webinar indicated panhandlers exist at the intersection of mental illness, chronic homelessness, and drug addiction,” Coon said. “To address panhandlers, you have to deal with those three.”
Panhandling ordinances haven’t proven effective in other municipalities, said Dr. Richard Cho, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Cho called the ordinances a “knee jerk reaction” and said municipalities are better off addressing panhandling by confronting homelessness. But Cho also added that “every panhandler isn’t homeless and every homeless person isn’t a panhandler.”
“All of the cities and towns that have begun to pass more strict ordinances that either ban or criminalize panhandlers have found what it does is it ties up police with social issues and moves the problem around,” he said.
The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness recently partnered with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to form a “mayoral task force on homelessness” that they hope will better engage municipalities in addressing homelessness.
According to the coalition, the number of people using homeless shelters in Connecticut has dropped 40 percent since 2012. Cho attributed the improvements to the state’s coordinated housing and homelessness intervention system and hopes the new partnership with CCM will let the coalition better connect municipalities to the system.