Sidewalk signs added to anti-panhandling fight

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader
August 07. 2017 11:21PM

A panhandling sign is posted on Elm Street outside Bunny’s Convenience store in Manchester on Monday afternoon. (Mark Bolton/Staff)

MANCHESTER — City police have unveiled their latest tool to discourage residents from giving money to panhandlers — sandwich-board sidewalk signs asking people to give to local charities instead.

The signs, similar to those installed on poles at more than a dozen locations across Manchester last month, say: “Your generosity could lead to a fatality.” People are encouraged to consider making a donation instead to social service agencies such as New Horizons for New Hampshire, Child and Family Services, and Families in Transition; the addresses and phone numbers for each are listed. 

“We are going to continue to get the message out, to beat the drum, to connect panhandlers with the social service agencies we have in the city,” Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard said. 

On downtown sidewalks, panhandlers are more likely to approach pedestrians. Willard said police can arrest a sidewalk panhandler only if he threatens people or shouts obscenities. He said he ordered two sandwich-board signs to place outside restaurants, urging people not to give to panhandlers, after someone sent him a picture of a similar sign outside a restaurant in New York City. 

Willard said the location of the two signs could change daily, possibly several times during a day, based on need. On Monday, a sign was located outside Bunny’s Convenience store at 947 Elm St.

“Where the signs are placed on any given day will be determined by our downtown patrol officers,” said Willard. “They will set up the sign outside locations where they are seeing panhandling activity.”

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen in June approved placing signs in locations frequented by panhandlers, following comments by Willard and Mayor Ted Gatsas that the top request they hear from Manchester residents, business owners and officials is to “do something” about panhandlers on city streets.

“The signs are proving to be a deterrent,” said Willard. “We’re seeing decreased panhandling activity where the signs were put up, but increased panhandling elsewhere in the city. They move to a new spot.”

Willard said the city is continuing discussions with officials at the state Department of Transportation about the possibility of locating signs at the foot of highway off-ramps. 

The signs echo statements made by Willard in June in a two-page letter to the community, in which he both discouraged people from giving to panhandlers while recognizing that panhandlers are within their rights to ask for money. 

According to Willard, 24 known panhandlers have overdosed over the last 29 months, some multiple times. Six of them died. 

“Ask yourself, in the spirit of giving, when you give somebody money … are you OK if that money is used to purchase drugs, and then they overdosed and died from it,” Willard said. 

Lawyers representing civil libertarians and the poor sued the city in federal court in January 2016, challenging the police department’s use of the state’s disorderly-conduct law to charge panhandlers holding signs on city sidewalks and asking motorists for money. 

Lawyers for both sides argued the legal merits of the panhandling lawsuit in U.S. District Court in May. The trial is expected to start Nov. 14.

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