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Responses to the Problem of Panhandling

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Most researchers and practitioners seem to agree that the enforcement of laws prohibiting panhandling plays only a part in controlling the problem.59 Public education to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers, informal social control and adequate social services (especially alcohol and drug treatment) for panhandlers are the other essential components of an effective and comprehensive response.

Panhandling, like many other forms of street disorder, is controlled more through informal means than through formal enforcement.† Panhandlers, merchants, passersby, social workers, and police beat officers form an intricate social network of mutual support and regulation. They all have something to gain by cooperating with one another (and, consequently, to lose by not cooperating with one another). Panhandlers obviously gain money, food and some social interaction from their activity; they risk losing them if they act too disorderly. Merchants will usually tolerate some panhandling, though seldom directly in front of their businesses. Some merchants even give panhandlers food or hire them to do odd jobs such as wash store windows. Passersby gain freedom from the harassment and intimidation of persistent and menacing panhandlers, along with the positive feelings they experience from truly voluntary charity. Social workers are more likely to be able to help those street people who are not frequently arrested for panhandling. Police beat officers can cultivate panhandlers as informants, helping the officers stay current with what is happening on the street.

† Goldstein's (1993) study of panhandling in New Haven, Conn., provides an excellent example of how panhandling is controlled through informal means. Duneier's (1999) study of New York City street vendors, scavengers and panhandlers also provides an exceptional example of informal social control on the street.

Enforcement Responses

Whether or not you emphasize enforcement of laws that regulate panhandling, it is important that the laws be able to survive legal challenge. Police should have valid enforcement authority to bolster other responses they use, including issuing warnings to panhandlers.60 Laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling or panhandling in specified areas are more likely to survive legal challenge than those that prohibit all panhandling. If enforcement of panhandling laws will be a key component of your strategy, and if you think the panhandling laws you rely on are vulnerable to legal challenge (or if you want to draft a new panhandling law), you should consult legal counsel to help you draft and propose new legislation. There are a number of model panhandling ordinances61 and legal commentaries on the constitutionality of panhandling laws62 in the literature. See Appendix A for a list and brief summary of some of the leading cases on the constitutionality of panhandling and laws that regulate it.

Warning panhandlers and ordering them to "move along" are perhaps the most common police responses to panhandling.63 Many police beat officers develop working relationships with regular panhandlers; they use a mix of formal and informal approaches to keeping panhandling under control.64 Most officers do not view panhandling as a serious matter, and are reluctant to devote the time necessary to arrest and book offenders.65 Moreover, even when they have the authority to issue citations and release the offenders, most officers realize that panhandlers are unlikely to either appear in court or pay a fine.66 Prosecutors are equally unlikely to prosecute panhandling cases, typically viewing them as an unwise use of scarce prosecutorial resources.67

Panhandler arrests are rare,68, † but when they occur, this is the typical scenario: An officer issues a panhandler a summons or citation that sets a court date or specifies a fine. The panhandler fails to appear in court or fails to pay the fine. A warrant is issued for the panhandler's arrest. The police later arrest the panhandler after running a warrant check during a subsequent encounter. The panhandler is incarcerated for no more than a couple of days, sentenced to time already served by the court, and released.69

† Goldstein (1993) estimated that police made arrests for panhandling in only about 1 percent of all police-panhandler encounters.

Because prosecutors and judges are unlikely to view isolated panhandling cases as serious matters, it is advisable to prepare and present to the court some background information on panhandling's overall impact on the community. A problem-impact statement can help prosecutors and judges understand the overall negative effect the seemingly minor offense of panhandling is having on the community.70 In the United Kingdom, police can apply to the courts for an "antisocial behavior order" against individuals or groups as one means of controlling their persistent low-level offending.71 Violations of the orders can result in relatively severe jail sentences.† It is unknown how effective the orders have been in controlling panhandling.

† British antisocial behavior orders are similar in some respects to American restraining and nuisance abatement orders.

1. Prohibiting aggressive panhandling. Laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling are more likely to survive legal challenge than laws that prohibit all panhandling, and are therefore to be encouraged.72 A growing number of jurisdictions have enacted aggressive-panhandling laws, most within the past 10 years.‡ Enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws can be difficult, partly because few panhandlers behave aggressively, and partly because many victims of aggressive panhandling do not report the offense to police or are unwilling to file a complaint. Police can use proactive enforcement methods such as having officers serve as decoys, giving panhandlers the opportunity to panhandle them aggressively.73 Some agencies have provided officers with special legal training before enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws.74 Enforcing other laws panhandlers commonly violate—those regarding drinking in public, trespassing, disorderly conduct, etc.—can help control some aspects of the panhandling problem.

‡ Among the jurisdictions to have enacted aggressive-panhandling laws are the states of Hawaii and California, and the cities of San Francisco; Seattle; Minneapolis; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Atlanta; Baltimore; Cincinnati; Dallas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Washington, D.C.

Police need not heavily enforce aggressive-panhandling laws in order to control panhandling; the informal norms among most panhandlers discourage aggressive panhandling anyway.75 Panhandlers exercise some influence over one another's behavior, to minimize complaints and keep police from intervening.76 Enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws can serve to reinforce the informal norms because aggressive panhandling by the few makes panhandling less profitable for others.77

Aggressive-panhandling laws typically include the following specific prohibitions:

  • Confronting someone in a way that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm
  • Touching someone without his or her consent
  • Continuing to panhandle or follow someone after he or she has refused to give money
  • Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe passage of a person or vehicle
  • Using obscene or abusive language toward someone while attempting to panhandle him or her
  • Acting with intent to intimidate someone into giving money.78
2. Prohibiting panhandling in specified areas. Many courts have held that laws can restrict where panhandling occurs. Panhandlers are increasingly being prohibited from panhandling:
  • Near ATMs
  • On public transportation vehicles and near stations and stops
  • Near business entrances/exits
  • On private property, if posted by the owner
  • On public beaches and boardwalks.79

One legal commentator has proposed a novel approach to regulating panhandling: zoning laws that would strictly prohibit panhandling in some areas, allow limited panhandling in other areas, and allow almost all panhandling in yet other areas.80 The literature does not report any jurisdiction that has adopted this approach as a matter of law, though clearly, police officers informally vary their enforcement depending on community tolerance levels in different parts of their jurisdiction.

Some communities prohibit panhandling in specified areas. Credit: Kip Kellogg

3. Prohibiting interference with pedestrians or vehicles. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that specifically prohibit impeding pedestrians' ability to walk either by standing or by lying down in the way. Enforcement can be difficult where such laws require police to establish the panhandler's intent to obstruct others. The city of Seattle drafted a law that eliminated the need to establish intent, and that law survived a legal challenge.81 Where panhandling occurs on roads, as car window-washing usually does, enforcing laws that prohibit interfering with motor vehicle traffic can help control the problem.82
4. Banning panhandlers from certain areas as a condition of probation. Because panhandling's viability depends so heavily on good locations, banning troublesome panhandlers from those locations as a condition of probation, at least temporarily, might serve to discourage them from panhandling and, perhaps, compel them to consider legitimate employment or substance abuse treatment.83 Convicted panhandlers might also be temporarily banned from publicly funded shelters.84 Alternatively, courts could use civil injunctions and restraining orders to control chronic panhandlers' conduct, although actual use of this approach does not appear in the literature.85 Obviously, police will require prosecutors' endorsements and judicial approval to advance these sorts of responses.
5. Sentencing convicted panhandlers to appropriate community service. Some jurisdictions have made wide use of community service sentences tailored to the particular offender and offense.86 For example, officers in St. Louis asked courts to sentence chronic panhandlers to community service cleaning the streets, sidewalks and alleys in the area where they panhandled.87
6. Requiring panhandlers to obtain solicitation permits. Some cities, including Wilmington, Delaware, and New Orleans, have at some time required panhandlers and window washers to obtain solicitation permits, just as permits are required from street vendors and others who solicit money in public.88† Little is known about the effectiveness of such permit schemes.

† Licensing schemes for beggars reportedly have existed in England as far back as 1530 (Teir 1993)[Full Text]. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (1994) has published guidance on drafting laws enabling permit systems, though the language seems designed to inhibit panhandling, rather than allow it.

Public Education Responses

7. Discouraging people from giving money to panhandlers, and encouraging them to give to charities that serve the needy. In all likelihood, if people stopped giving money to panhandlers, panhandling would cease.89 Public education campaigns are intended to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers. They typically offer three main arguments: 1) panhandlers usually use the money to buy alcohol and drugs, rather than goods and services that will improve their condition; 2) giving panhandlers small amounts of money is insufficient to address the underlying circumstances that cause them to panhandle; and 3) social services are available to meet panhandlers' food, clothing, shelter, health care, and employment needs. Some people do not understand the relationship between panhandling and substance abuse, or are unaware of available social services, however obvious these factors may seem to police.90 Public education messages have been conveyed via posters, pamphlets, movie trailers, and charity collection points.91 A poster campaign was an important element of the New York City Transit Authority's effort to control subway panhandling.92 In Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, special parking meters were used as collection points for charities that serve the needy.93 Some police officers have invested a lot of their own time making personal appeals to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.94 Some cities, such as Evanston, Illinois, have hired trained civilians to make such appeals.95 Not everyone will be persuaded by the appeals; some will undoubtedly perceive them as uncaring.

Signs and flyers, such as this one from Madison, Wisconsin, have been used effectively to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.

8. Using civilian patrols to monitor and discourage panhandling. In Baltimore, a business improvement district group hired police-trained, uniformed, unarmed civilian public-safety guides to intervene in low-level disorder incidents, and to radio police if their warnings were not heeded.96 Portland, Oregon, developed a similar program,97 as did Evanston.98
9. Encouraging people to buy and give panhandlers vouchers, instead of money. Some communities have instituted programs whereby people can buy and give panhandlers vouchers redeemable for food, shelter, transportation, or other necessities, but not for alcohol or tobacco.† Typically, a private nonprofit organization prints and sells the vouchers and serves as the broker between buyers and merchants. Some vouchers are printed in a way that makes them difficult to counterfeit. Vouchers are often accompanied with printed information about where they can be redeemed and what social services are available to the needy. Window signs and flyers are commonly used to advertise voucher programs. There is some risk, however, that panhandlers will exchange the vouchers for money through a black market,99 or that few people will buy the vouchers, as has been reported in some jurisdictions.100

† The earliest reported program was in Los Angeles. Other cities where voucher programs have been instituted include Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California; Nashville; Memphis; New Haven; Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Seattle; Boulder, Colorado; New York; and Edmonton, Alberta (Ellickson 1996; New York Times 1993; Wall Street Journal 1993). Some communities have considered and rejected voucher programs (Evanston Police Department 1995).[Full Text]

Situational Responses

10. Modifying the physical environment to discourage panhandlers from congregating in the area. Among the environmental features conducive to or facilitating panhandling are the following: access to water (for drinking, bathing and filling buckets for window washing); restrooms; unsecured garbage dumpsters (for scavenging food and sellable materials); and places to sit or lie down, protected from the elements. These physical features can be modified to discourage panhandling.101 Police in Santa Ana, California, as part of a larger effort to control aggressive panhandling, persuaded business owners to modify many physical features of their property, to make it less attractive to panhandlers, without inconveniencing customers.102 A number of police efforts to address broader problems related to transient encampments—problems that included panhandling—entailed removing the transients from the encampments and referring them to social service agencies.103
11. Regulating alcohol sales to chronic inebriates who panhandle in the area. Because many panhandlers are chronic inebriates, and because they spend so much of their panhandling money on alcohol, enforcing laws that prohibit alcohol sales to intoxicated people or chronic inebriates is one means of discouraging panhandling in the area. Several police agencies have reported using this approach in their efforts to control panhandling and other problems related to chronic inebriates.104 Alternatively, merchants might be persuaded to change their sales practices to discourage panhandlers from shopping at their stores (e.g., by eliminating such products as fortified wine or not selling single containers of beer).
12. Controlling window-washing materials. Several police agencies have reported on ways to control how squeegee men/panhandlers acquire, store and use window-washing materials. Santa Ana police asked nearby businesses to remove an outdoor water fountain that squeegee men were using to fill their buckets.105 Vancouver, British Columbia, police discovered where squeegee men stored their buckets and squeegees, and had property owners secure the storage places. They also had gas station owners engrave their squeegee equipment with identifying marks to deter theft by panhandlers.106
13. Promoting legitimate uses of public places to displace panhandlers. Police in Staffordshire, England, encouraged the municipal authority to promote street musicians in public places where panhandlers abounded, as one means to discourage panhandlers from begging in the area.107 The underlying logic was that passersby would likely notice the distinction between those who solicit money in exchange for something pleasant, and those who panhandle but offer nothing in return. Passersby would theoretically be less inclined to give money to panhandlers, thereby discouraging panhandling. Similarly, the New York/New Jersey Port Authority promoted new and attractive businesses in the Manhattan bus terminal as part of a larger strategy to reduce crime and disorder, including panhandling. Complaints about panhandling in the terminal declined by one-third over a four-year period.108

Social Services/Treatment Response

14. Providing adequate social services and substance abuse treatment to reduce panhandlers' need to panhandle. To address some of the underlying problems of many panhandlers (e.g., substance abuse, lack of marketable skills, mental illness, inadequate housing), police may need to advocate new social services, or help coordinate existing services.109 Police can be and have long been instrumental in advocating and coordinating social services for panhandlers, and in referring people to those services.110 Fontana, California, police coordinated a highly successful program that provided panhandlers and other transients with a wide range of health care, food, job training, and housing placement services. They offered treatment as an alternative to enforcement; they enforced laws regulating street disorder, including panhandling, and transported those willing to accept treatment to the social service center.111 New York/New Jersey Port Authority police did likewise in helping to control panhandling and other forms of crime and disorder in the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City.112

Short-term substance-abuse treatment programs, however, are not likely to be effective for most panhandlers—their addictions are too strong—and most who participate in short-term programs quickly revert to their old habits.113 Unfortunately, long-term programs cost more than most communities are willing to spend. Police could advocate the most chronic offenders' being given priority for long-term treatment programs, or the courts could mandate such programs.114 Some social service outreach efforts target those people identified as causing the most problems for the community.115 In Madison, Wisconsin, detoxification workers even took to the streets to proactively monitor the conduct of their most difficult clients. Some panhandlers will, of course, refuse social service and treatment offers because they are unwilling to make the lifestyle changes usually required to stay in the programs.116

Response With Limited Effectiveness

15. Enforcing laws that prohibit all panhandling. Many laws that prohibit all panhandling were written long ago and are vaguely and broadly worded: consequently, they are unlikely to survive a legal challenge.† About half of the states and over a third of major cities in America have laws that prohibit all or some forms of panhandling.117

† See Teir (1993)[Full Text] for a discussion of the long history of laws prohibiting and regulating begging.

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