Following people into restaurants. Going table-to-table asking for money. Pressuring people for spare change at parking meters. Tag-teaming high-traffic intersections.
Panhandlers are using those high-pressure tactics, according to downtown and Wooster Square neighbors. They’ve appealed for help.
The neighborhood’s top cop, Sgt. Tammi Means told the neighbors at a community management team meeting this week that police officers are doing all they can to discourage panhandlers, but options are limited.
When it comes to what constitutes aggressive panhandling, it is up to the person being panhandled to determine how far is too far. It also is up that person to call the cops and report the person, which of course would give the panhandler time to escape.
And even if panhandlers are caught in the act, panhandling certainly isn’t against the law in New Haven. At least not yet.
Outgoing Downtown/East Rock Alder Abby Roth is looking to draft an ordinance targeting aggressive panhandling. But she said the city has to walk a fine line with the courts on any legislation. That’s because panhandling is considered a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
Livable City Initiative Neighborhood Specialist Carmen Mendez (pictured at left in the photo, from Tuesday night’s management team meeting), recently assigned to downtown and Wooster Square after spending several years working in Newhallville and East Rock, said some communities around the country have passed ordinances to address aggressive panhandling. Some of the laws include creating buffer zones around ATMs and parking meters. Those ordinances have passed legal muster with the courts, she said.
Means (at right in photo) said Police Chief Dean Esserman wants cops to put pressure—short of arrest—on panhandlers, particularly at the gateways into the city. She said the chief’s stance errs on the side of protecting people’s civil rights. Esserman said at a recent Compstat meeting that the first thing people see when they enter the city, and the last thing they see when they exit, are people asking for money, and he told officers to change that.
One of the strategies that officers employ on panhandlers is catching them breaking related laws like trespassing on private property. One of Mean’s rookies recently hit a panhandler where it would presumably hurt most—the pocket—by charging him with reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian violation. The cost? Seventy-five bucks.
Neighbor Edward Anderson said he doesn’t have a problem with people hitting him up for spare change, and doesn’t think most people in New Haven have a problem either. What he does have a problem with are panhandlers who don’t take no for an answer.
He said he has personally witnessed panhandlers following people down the sidewalk to try to intimidate them into giving. “There are a lot of untoward things happening,” he said. “There are people clearly crossing the line.”
Not only are some panhandlers behaving aggressively, at certain intersections, they are so confident in their ability to make money that they are recruiting people to work certain intersections and having them report regularly for collection duty.
Don Holevoet has lived at his home near Orange Street and Trumbull since the mid-1970s. He said it has only been in recent years that he has noticed groups of panhandlers spending their days out near his home to make money.
“Sometimes there are as many as five, sitting out on the corner,” he said. “I overheard one of them telling another one how to do it.” At one point, panhandlers had become so bold, that they felt comfortable stashing items on his property, Holevoet said.
Elaine Piraino-Holevoet said she’s never had problems giving to people on the street, but she said the panhandlers who have started turning up near her house are not the kind of people who would accept food or a beverage in lieu of money. “They would just throw it in our yard,” she said. “They’re only in it for the money.”
The Holevoets say they usually have to clean up the trash that the panhandlers leave behind. One panhandler ripped off a piece of a brown paper bag that they were using for discarded leaves to make a sign. They often find themselves recycling the cardboard and paper signs that panhandlers have left behind in their yard at the end of the day.
The city’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department has a proposal before the Board of Alders that would allow for the installation of 10 repurposed parking meters to be placed at various, yet-to-be determined locations around the city to provide people an alternative to giving to people on the street. (Read more about that here.) In the 1990s the city had a “New Haven Cares” program to offer panhandlers vouchers for food instead of cash.
Means said Roth’s proposed ordinance would help police in their efforts to discourage panhandling. In fact, she said it would be helpful if alders could tie in the issue of loitering into any new ordinance.
“Hi ma’am. How are you today?” B (at right in photo; he declined to give his full name) asked with a smile while standing at the corner of Chapel and Temple streets in front of Subway. “I like your dress. I’m homeless and just trying to get a little change together. Can you help me?”
Chances are you’ve seen B downtown around lunch time, or at the end of the day asking strangers for money. His “long route,” as he called it, is up on Whalley Avenue near the Stop ‘n Shop. He’s been panhandling for about a year, and he is as dedicated to it as he was to the carpentry business he owned for nearly 40 years.
“I try to hit here at about 4:30 p.m. because everybody is usually gone by 6 p.m.,” he said. “I pitch once. But not twice. If they’ve already said no, I don’t pitch to them again.”
He does sometimes make his pitch while walking a few feet with the person he’s asking for money because they’re usually walking. But if they say no, he backs off, he said.
B said he knows that that is not the case with every panhandler. He said if the city were to pass an ordinance against panhandling, particularly one that establishes buffer zones, it would probably hurt “his line of work,” as he called it.
“But I can understand why they feel the need to do it,” he said. “It gives us all a bad name.”
For 45 minutes Wednesday evening, B politely “went to work” asking passersby for their spare change. Most people tensed up as if they knew they were about to be hit up for money. And they were. Those people quickly said no, averted their eyes, shrugged and briskly walked away.
Some people, captured by B’s ragged-toothed smile, still said no, but gave him a genuine smile back. One man tried to lecture him.
“They’re not all assholes,” B said with a rueful smile. “But some of them are.” Mostly he said he gets hit with the old “I only have a debit card.”
“One day I want to break out one of those old-fashioned swipe machines and say, ‘I take cards too,’” he chortled. “Now that would be funny.” When begging is your job, and the Green is where you sleep at night, you have to find your humor where you can get it, he said.
On duty, he offered compliments and flirted a little with the women. He didn’t solicit every person who passed by. He said he has developed a sense for when someone will say no or is walking fast to avoid him. He also said he often has to overcome his own embarrassment in having to ask.
“I don’t usually try ask if I see a whole family together,” said the 62-year-old father of two. “I don’t want the kids to see.”
But because he needs the money, he said, he knows at some point he has to make the ask. He said he usually makes enough to pay for toiletries, or a place to wash clothes, or a haircut where there is no line. On a good day, between working the corners around lunch time and again in the evening, he might make about $25 total, B said. He said what would be helpful to him is if the systems for getting housing and other services were a bit easier to navigate.
“It’s not easy,” he said of asking, his cornflower blue eyes watering a bit. “You swallow a lot of pride out here.”