MANCHESTER — Panhandling is a growing problem in the Queen City, but if it’s any consolation the city is not alone.
On Wednesday, Police Chief David Mara was joined by civic leaders from Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vt., to discuss ways to address the issue. The talk was part of the first Economic Development Summit put on by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, which has taken steps recently to combat panhandling and homelessness in the downtown area.
“Panhandling is on the increase,” Mara said. “And the demographic doing it, they’re now a younger, more aggressive crowd. For the most part, it’s not a question of homelessness. There is a homeless problem in Manchester, and there are social services ... . But the people we’re dealing with don’t avail themselves of those programs. They have substance-abuse problems.”
Mara acknowledged that panhandling was less a criminal matter than a social problem, a point stressed by the other panelists.
Chris O’Neil, the city hall liaison with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that three of the city’s council members belonged to the Green Party, and the city has been referred to as the “Berkeley of the east.”
“We have a compassionate ethos in the city,” O’Neil said, explaining that the city has a “Have a Heart” campaign, whereby visitors downtown are encouraged to donate at receptacles at participating businesses, rather than giving their change to people on the street.
“We have a lot of good things going on,” O’Neil said. “But we’re also the place people go when they’re down on their luck ... . We embrace being a service center community, but like Manchester we have to manage it.”
In both Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vt., cards are distributed downtown that urge visitors not to give money to panhandlers; instead, the cards list organizations that assist the needy. Burlington and Portland have another tool in dealing with panhandling; both have “aggressive panhandling” ordinances that make it a crime to use abusive language, harass or make physical contact with someone when asking for money. The ordinances also bar panhandling within a set distance of certain business, such as banks and ATMs.
Tammy Boudah, who is part of the “street outreach team” for the Howard Center, a social service agency that serves the Burlington area, said that the cards they distribute outline the ordinance and resources available to the needy. “Panhandling is a constitutionally protected activity,” Boudah said. “What we’re trying to do is effect a cultural shift.”
Mara said that an aggressive panhandling ordinance was something Manchester officials should consider, but he noted that it would have to comport with the laws and culture of the Granite State. “This is the ‘live free or die’ state,” he said. “As much as I’d love to have something like that, I’m not sure it would hold up in our court system.”
Manchester has recently taken a novel approach to dealing with panhandling: installing old parking meters to collect change, which goes to the homeless shelter and food pantry. While the meters have only generated a few hundred dollars since they were installed a couple months ago, Mara said he would like to see more of the meters. “It allows people to exercise compassion without feeding someone’s addiction,” Mara said.
The discussion focused on a related problem, the presence of vagrants and homeless people in city parks. Over the summer, Manchester police stepped up its presence in the downtown parks, in particular at Victory and Veterans parks. Officers have been assigned to the parks, and at times, a police cruiser has been parked in the center of Victory Park.
Mara said that the officers could be called away from the parks at any point to respond to a call, but he said the presence has acted as a deterrent to drug users congregating there.
The police department’s efforts drew praise from Peter Ramsey, who heads the Palace Theatre.
“It’s hard to have a city and not have it be safe to visit,” he said. “People have to feel like they can walk around, talk, smile, go to the theater.”