MANCHESTER, NH – Panhandling is a problem – police know it, residents are tired of it, and nobody seems to know how to solve it. But a majority of those who actively request hand-outs from pedestrians and motorists are often doing so to support an underlying issue, from mental health crises and poverty, to drug and alcohol addiction.
On Wednesday Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard issued a detailed message, calling panhandling a “community issue,” one for which the police department will be partnering with the community to resolve. It was formulated in response to a growing number of complaints from the public that the police aren’t doing enough to curtail the practice of people holding signs begging for money at intersections around the city.
“We are working on an educational campaign asking people not to give to panhandlers,” Willard said, introducing the initiative during the June 7 Police Commissioners meeting. “It’s quite simple.”
Willard said in the past two years, police records show 24 known repeat panhandlers have overdosed – some multiple times – requiring medical intervention. Six of the 24 died from drug overdoses.
“We know a lot of the underlying issues – poverty, mental illness, addiction – and so, what we’re asking the public to do, is to stop giving to panhandlers because it’s my belief that ultimately, they’re contributing to whatever social issue that person is experiencing,” Willard said.
“Many panhandlers are using money they get from citizens for drugs, and we know that there are social services in the city to take care of each and every need listed on their signs, whether it’s food or housing,” Willard said.
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If every person stops giving to panhandlers, the panhandlers will begin to disappear, he said – hopefully because they instead find their way to a Safe Station, or other social outreach.
It’s a tactic that has seen positive results elsewhere. For example, a similar public education campaign in Evanston, Ill., resulted in a 64 percent decrease in panhandling, according to a study by the Urban Institute, and it also reduced the incidences of “aggressive” panhandling.
“If someone violates the law while panhandling, police will take the required action. If they commit a criminal offense, like pounding on a car window, or running into the roadway to take money, we’ll do our part. We won’t tell someone get off the street, because it’s not illegal to ask another human being for money, or to give it,” Willard said. “But with this initiative we’re asking the community to help us – stop giving directly to panhandlers.”
Manchester is among several New Hampshire municipalities that has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union NH in the past for “violating the free speech” of panhandlers.
Gilles Bissonnette ACLU NH Legal Director said the organization is primarily concerned with protection of free speech for all citizens.
“We greatly appreciate Chief Willard’s measured and thoughtful memorandum addressing panhandling in Manchester. As Chief Willard indicated, peaceful panhandling in public places is, while often unpopular, speech protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular, peaceful speech. It is situations such as these where our commitment to free speech is most tested and most important,” Bissonnette said in a written response to the memo.
“While we are currently litigating against Manchester for its past actions against panhandlers, we appreciate the Department’s recognition that, rather than suppressing peaceful speech, existing criminal laws can be enforced in a constitutionally appropriate way against panhandlers who create an actual danger to public safety through their conduct,” Bissonnette said. “We also fully support Chief Willard’s belief that panhandling is not exclusively a criminal enforcement issue and that these individuals should not be treated as criminals. As the City considers alternative approaches to addressing panhandling, the ACLU is willing to be a resource to ensure that free speech is protected.”
You can review cases related to panhandling on the ACLU website here.
Willard during the meeting relayed an actual scenario witnessed by Assistant Police Chief Carlo Capano, who saw a motorist stop at a green light to hand a bottle of whiskey to a panhandler through the car window.
“In that case, the panhandler will be cited for taking whiskey, the motorist will be cited for stopping at a green light,” Willard said. “It really happened, and Assistant Chief Capano just happened to witness it.”
In the letter, Willard recognizes that many who choose to give to panhandlers are doing so out of a place of compassion.
“If those in our community who routinely give to panhandlers really understood the underlying social challenges behind panhandling, I honestly believe they would recognize their donation would be better utilized by the social agencies that can address the panhandlers issues,” Willard writes. “Homelessness, mental illness and addiction can be addressed by our social service network to put people back on track. As a community we need to look inward and extol our generosity in a more productive and human manner.”
Willard is urging the public to instead donate to a food pantry, a recovery center, “or any of the many agencies that seek to give a hand up and not just a hand out.”
During the brief presentation for police commissioners Willard said another way for the public to look at the situation is that they may be contributing to prolonging a person’s suffering by keeping them a prisoner of their pain, whether it’s mental illness or addiction.
“We’re asking the public not to be complicit in the cycle – the five dollars you give to a panhandler may lead to their death, even though people are doing it from a position of kindness. What the panhandlers do not need is money to be handed to them to facilitate their addiction,” Willard said.
Police Commissioner Scott Spradling asked what the police department’s response is to those who want the city to find a way to abolish panhandling completely.
Willard said during Tuesday’s Aldermanic meeting the highway department gained approval to work with police to erect street signs imploring the public not to donate directly to panhandlers. The signs would list local agencies and services where donations would be better spent.
Willard spells it out plainly in his letter: “Do these donors ever question whether or not that money will be used to buy drugs, perhaps even a fatal dose of heroin/fentanyl? Do they wonder if the panhandler will use it to buy alcohol and potentially pass out, never to wake again? Do they realize they may actually be contributing to, or even encouraging the panhandler’s social challenges?”
You can read Willard’s letter in full below: