January 28, 2013

Panhandling moves south as economy takes its toll

Commonplace in Portland for years, the practice is spreading elsewhere, amid a growing demand for services.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Mark Crowley of Saco panhandles for money at the corner of Alfred and Main streets in Biddeford. Crowley says he is an unemployed carpenter who is currently living in a tent in the woods in Saco as he tries to find a job.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Panhandlers

Do you ever give money to panhandlers?

Yes

No

View Results