I-Team: Panhandler population growing

HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) -  The panhandling population is growing in western Massachusetts.

The 22News I-Team discovered, there's little that your elected leaders can do to stop it.  While others don't see anything wrong with someone asking for help.

You can't drive very far without seeing a panhandler begging for money. In Holyoke some city councilors are trying to find a solution.

One issue that they're running into is that not everyone sees this as a problem and legally panhandlers have rights too, the I-Team reveals what alternatives are possible and where that money may be going.

"I see them on I-391 and I see them in Hadley, when you get off 91," said Dawn Robare.

Whether they're holding cardboard signs in Springfield or asking drivers for money in Chicopee; panhandlers are popping up everywhere.

You see them in Holyoke. On any given day at least seven intersections in Holyoke are manned by panhandlers. Several near the Holyoke Mall and K-Mart Plaza.  They work in teams and in shifts.

"It's a huge problem, it's a huge nuisance, it's one of the biggest complaints I get from constituents," said Holyoke City Council President Kevin Jourdain.

Attorney Bill Newman is the Director of the Western Regional Law Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts. He says panhandling isn't a problem at all.

"The notion that cities and towns need more methods to somehow curb an activity, that some disagree with or would like to restrict, I think it begins with a false premise," said Newman.

That's not stopping the Holyoke City Council from trying to place some restrictions on panhandling.

"We were going to put physical barriers to prevent people from standing in the the median, interspersing with traffic, stopping people at red lights, soliciting people on the road. The city council passed it, and Mayor Morse stopped it," said Jourdain.

The Mayors Chief of Staff told the I-Team they are trying to find ways to resolve the panhandling issue but wouldn't tell exactly what they're doing. Several City Councilors want to find a way to prohibit panhandlers from standing on medians or walking into busy intersections, so far similar ordinances have already been struck down in courts in Massachusetts.

"Panhandling it has been decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and the Federal Courts is a protected 1st Amendment activity in the same way that the Salvation Army can ask you on the street for a donation. Do you want to stop the Salvation Army from being on the street?," said Newman.

(Is there a way you can create an ordinance that will actually become law?)

"Yes, we think that licensing rules for example, you have to have licenses to around soliciting for charities to make sure they're not fake charities, those laws already exist, those should be enforced, or applied here. We also think these physical restriction and barrier rules are what we call "content neutral," said Jourdain.

Holyoke's Police Chief also wants something to be done, he believes panhandling contributes to the cities heroin crisis.

"Most of them are addicts. I'm not saying all of them are but most of them are addicts so when people donate to them, maybe some of that money goes to food but most of it goes to feed their addiction," said Holyoke Police Chief James Neiswanger on July 6th after a major heroin bust.

New Haven is one of the few cities across the country that have installed donation meters, that way when you give money you know where it's going.

"I've seen them where they got money and the next thing I know they're going to a package store in East Springfield," said Springfield's Bob Spaulding.

In New Haven the money from the donation meters goes  to different services that help the homeless and less fortunate.

In Albany, Oregon it's illegal to give money to panhandlers who are in the street.

Worcester and Lowell had aggressive panhandling ordinances on the books, but the courts overturned them. That cost the cities hundreds of thousands in legal fees.

Many cities across the country are currently facing ACLU lawsuits about their panhandling ordinances, including Houston, Texas, Fort Smith and Rogers, Arkansas.  Columbus, Ohio stopped enforcing a panhandling ordinance after a court ruling.

Council President Jourdain told the I-Team they plan to try and come up with other solutions.



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