BIDDEFORD – People have told Mark Crowley that he could make more money panhandling in Portland, but for now he sticks close to home — a wooded campsite in Saco.
Nearly every day, he stands at the corner of Main and Alfred streets, his back against a light pole and his hands clutching a large sign that describes him as hungry, homeless and in need of help.
For the past year, the 53-year-old unemployed carpenter has been camping in the woods across the river. He said his only source of income is the money people hand to him as they drive past.
“I need money. I’m not making nothing, not a dollar,” he said. “There’s no work around. I’m doing this to try to make a couple bucks.”
Crowley is among a handful of panhandlers who, within the past month, have started standing at major intersections in Biddeford to ask for help. What has been a common sight on street corners and at busy intersections in downtown Portland is spreading to other communities, where social service agencies are seeing growing demand for food, shelter and other public assistance.
The sight of panhandlers is new in Biddeford, say city officials and agencies that work with the poor and homeless.
It’s still rare to see people asking for money across the river in Saco, but it happens occasionally there, too, said Police Chief Brad Paul.
“What has been a bigger issue for Portland is certainly spreading south,” he said. “I wouldn’t be that surprised if more people can eventually be seen doing this in places like Saco and Sanford.”
In South Portland, panhandlers can be found asking for money while standing on narrow medians near the Maine Mall, something police say is relatively new in the city.
Police Chief Edward Googins said his officers have issued warnings and summonses to panhandlers who have violated the law by approaching cars.
Even in Portland, officials have noticed panhandlers spreading off the downtown peninsula into more suburban areas of the city.
The trend appears to be spreading beyond cities.
• Scarborough police have had contact with two panhandlers since December, said Sgt. Rick Rouse. One man was warned to stay off a median on Payne Road near the Maine Mall, while another was issued a summons for approaching cars at the same intersection.
• In December, Wells residents, who were upset with a man asking for money outside a local grocery store, briefly circulated a petition on Facebook to ban panhandling. Town Manager Jonathan Carter said that petition was never given to town officials.
A couple have been panhandling in town recently, he said, but that hasn’t created any problems so far.
The arrival of panhandlers has perhaps been most noticeable in Biddeford.
Police Chief Roger Beaupre said he started seeing panhandlers regularly within the past couple of months. A few people stand on corners near the police station, while others frequent the intersections near the Biddeford Crossing shopping center and Walmart plaza. Some ask for cash, while others collect cans and bottles.
“There’s no law against panhandling. The minute they step in the roadway and get in the way of traffic, we have a problem we can enforce,” Beaupre said. “Right now they haven’t been a problem. Portland has been putting up with it a lot longer than we have.”
In July, the Portland City Council rejected an ordinance that would have prevented anyone from standing on a median. It would not have prohibited panhandling as long as people moved out of intersections and onto sidewalks.
While city officials said the proposal was intended to address safety concerns, advocates for the homeless said the rule was aimed at panhandlers.
Laws that restrict or prohibit panhandling or begging may raise free-speech concerns, as courts have found begging to be protected free speech under the First Amendment, according to a report released in November by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In August, a federal judge ruled that a ban on public begging in Michigan violated the First Amendment.
Melissa Bednarowski, a Biddeford city councilor, said she has been contacted by residents who are concerned about how the presence of panhandlers looks to people shopping downtown.
Her own concerns center on safety — primarily disrupting traffic or distracting drivers — and the fact “that there are that many people in need.”
“It’s really not anything the city can take on, other than to provide resources,” she said. “It’s a sign of the times.”
Like Bednarowski, Councilor Bob Mills feels the increase in the number of panhandlers in the city is indicative of the economy.
“Despite the economy’s slow recovery, there are still people out of work and it’s tough to make ends meet,” he said.
Food pantries and a free-meal program in Biddeford have had an increase in patrons, but Vicky Edgerly, Biddeford’s director of health and welfare, said none of the frequent panhandlers has come in for assistance. She said she believes that some are supplementing their income by collecting donations and returnables.
The city can help people who are homeless and have no income by paying for a night at a rooming house, she said. General Assistance from the city, however, can only pay for essentials.
The closest emergency shelter to Biddeford is run by the York County Shelter Programs, in Alfred.
Bob Dawber, chief operating officer of the shelter programs, said the Alfred campus has 53 beds for adults in its emergency shelter. Those beds, along with beds in the program’s transitional and permanent housing settings, are usually full, he said.
The food pantry run by the program saw a 38 percent increase in fiscal year 2012, further demonstrating the need in York County, he said.
In the past five months, the number of people who attend the Bon Appetit meal program in Biddeford has crept up from 1,000 to 1,500 a month, said Debra Gagnon the director. Bon Appetit offers free dinner each weeknight to anyone who walks through the door.
“We used to have 50 to 70 (people) a night, but one night in December we had close to 120,” Gagnon said. “When I get 100 people, I know they’re desperate. The ones who don’t really need (dinner) don’t come.”
Don Bisson, director of the Friends of Community Action Food Pantry in Biddeford, said it is clear there are more people in the city who need assistance than in recent years.
With the closing of two large employers, the Hostess bakery and Maine Energy Recovery Co., more people are turning to the pantry for food, he said.
In 2012, the pantry provided food to 14,898 people, an increase of more than 3,200 over the previous year. The pantry had its busiest day ever last week, with 84 families picking up food.
“The need has become greater and greater. It’s tremendous,” Bisson said. “The people are lined up (across the parking lot) to the street. There’s a line for hours.”
Though Crowley, the homeless man from Saco, could turn to local programs for help, he relies entirely on the donations of strangers to survive. He said he applied for housing assistance a year ago and continues to look for a job.
Crowley has considered going to the shelter program in Alfred, but doesn’t have a car to drive there. He’d rather head for warmer weather in Florida than the street corners of Portland, he said.
On a recent Sunday, Crowley collected $80 — but only because three people gave him large bills. Mostly, he collects a dollar or two at a time, rarely taking in more than $20 in a day, he said.
It makes him happy that some people are willing to help, but he said it bothers him when people drive past without giving him money. Still, it’s hard to ask for help, he said.
“It lowers my self-esteem and makes me feel low. I don’t really like doing this, but there’s nothing else I can do,” Crowley said. “If I could find a job, I’d go to work.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: