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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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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:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: grahamgillian

 

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Today's poll: Panhandlers

Do you ever give money to panhandlers?

Yes

No

View Results