Saturday, April 19, 2014
PORTLAND – Parallel efforts are under way to tackle the growing issue of panhandling in the city, especially at busy intersections.
Alison Prior, 29, of Portland, receives change from a passerby while she panhandles at the corner of Preble Street and Marginal Way on Friday, May 24, 2013. Prior says she panhandles for extra money while she and her boyfriend look for an apartment.
Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer
Don Dietz, 48, panhandles for change in the median at the corner of Franklin Street and Marginal Way on Friday, May 24, 2013.
Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer
One effort involves resurrecting a previously failed effort to ban loitering on street medians, while the other is an education campaign about alternative ways to give responsibly to those in need.
Last fall, the City Council voted down a ban on loitering on street medians. Since then, many have observed a proliferation of people asking for money at busy intersections, creating what officials say is an unsafe situation for pedestrians and motorists alike.
"Whether it's someone panhandling or waving a campaign sign, (the median) is an unsafe place to loiter," said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who leads the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.
Panhandling is no longer an issue solely on the peninsula. In addition to the usual hot spots in Deering Oaks and along Marginal Way, begging in the median is now common on Forest Avenue – from the University of Southern Maine to Morrill's Corner – West Commercial Street and Brighton Avenue.
The council's public safety committee will take up the issue next month.
The Police Department, meanwhile, is working on a report about emergency calls stemming from unsafe activities in medians, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
Panhandling also was the dominant theme of a meeting recently between neighborhood leaders and two of the city's at-large councilors, Jill Duson and Nicholas Mavodones.
Duson did not return calls for comment Thursday and Friday. But Mavodones said residents have observed what appears to be organized collections at some of the busiest intersections, with people taking shifts standing in the median.
Meanwhile, some people in the medians are unsteady on their feet, while others walk in the travel lanes to approach vehicles. Occasionally, cars that have a green traffic signal suddenly stop in the middle of the road to give money to people, nearly causing accidents, residents reported.
"Now, every median that can be occupied is occupied," said Emma Holder, president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association.
Stationed on one such strip Friday was Alison Prior, 29. Prior said she has been homeless since January and sandwiches in a few hours on the median at Preble Street and Marginal Way between appointments during the day. On a good day, motorists give $20 or $25.
Mostly, though, she depends on the donations to buy staples of modern life that working people take for granted.
"A stick of deodorant -- that's four people who are nice enough to give me a dollar," said Prior, who sings to pass the time.
Within a few minutes, a woman heaved a fresh pack of hamburger buns from her car window. A few minutes later, someone gave a bottle of water. Prior said the proposed ban on loitering in medians would greatly reduce what little cash people like her can scrape together.
"I feel like people still look down on me," she said. "I have a college education. I just had a bad run of luck."
Although no city committee has discussed the prospect of another ban, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says it's ready to take legal action, should the ban be approved.
ACLU of Maine's legal director, Zachary Heiden, said in a blog post Thursday that the ACLU of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against the city of Worcester over a similar ordinance focused on panhandling in highway medians.
"We will be prepared to do the same here in Maine if necessary," he wrote.
David M. Moore, Worcester's city solicitor, said the city passed two ordinances earlier this year, both of which are the subject of the ACLU lawsuit. One bans aggressive panhandling, while the other is more a "super-jaywalking" ordinance.
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Alison Prior, 29, of Portland, panhandles for change at the corner of Preble Street and Marginal Way on Friday, May 24, 2013. Prior says she panhandles for extra money while she and her boyfriend look for an apartment.