Panhandling, in which people beg for money along the public streets and sidewalks, raises a wide variety of emotions in passersby, from compassion to anger. These beggars usually hold up a sign bearing a pathetic message and ask people to give them money, work or food to help them out.

No one likes to see beggars on the street corners and medians, whether it’s because they feel bad for them or because they believe these folks are bums who give the area a bad image. Trouble is, it’s a difficult problem to address. Last week, some headlines read that the City of Portland had “banned panhandling” in an attempt to help clean up the city, but that wasn’t exactly true. Panhandling is protected by the First Amendment, so it can’t actually be banned.

Cities that have a problem with the phenomenon have had to find ways to skirt an outright ban, so Portland already has a law against “aggressive panhandling.” The city’s new ordinance will also make it illegal for people to loiter on highway medians. It’s being painted as a safety issue, and according to an Associated Press report, the police chief has fielded complaints about near misses with vehicles, intoxicated panhandlers stumbling into traffic, and even altercations among homeless people jockeying for the best location.

While these are certainly valid safety concerns, it’s hard to believe that’s the real reason for the ordinance change. Advocates for the homeless have noted that while dozens of homeless people died last year, none were victims of panhandling accidents.

Let’s face it: Loitering bans and other such measures are an effort to rid a city of the blight of panhandling, not to protect those who are begging. No city wants to have beggars on its street corners, as it often intimidates people who are walking or driving by, thereby discouraging them from visiting certain shops; and ultimately turns people off from an entire area, giving it a bad reputation.

The practice cannot be banned, however, and the variety of potential motivations that can play a part in panhandling ”“ poverty, hopelessness, laziness, mental illness, homelessness and disability ”“ are not easily solved. Some suggest that if all passing motorists refuse to give handouts to people, they will go away, but there’s no way to ensure that someone won’t let guilt or compassion get the best of them some day. There’s also no way to keep people from using street corners, sidewalks and other public spaces to conduct a panhandling operation once they’re kicked off the median.

Portland is far from alone in dealing with a significant increase in beggars, and efforts are under way nationwide to address the problem. Biddeford is seeing regular solicitation near the outer-Route 111 shopping centers and the median near the highway, not to mention several corners in the downtown.

According to studies cited by the nonprofit Center for Problem Oriented Policing, panhandlers spend much of their money on alcohol, drugs and tobacco, and their haul varies widely depending on where they are and how adept they are. Some are homeless, some not, the Center’s report states, but most are unmarried men who do not have jobs and struggle with substance abuse problems.

Clearly, it doesn’t make sense to give money to panhandlers. Not only does it encourage a potentially dangerous behavior and contribute to blight in the city, but it’s also not ultimately helping the person who is begging. We’re glad to see Portland is doing whatever it can to discourage this behavior while still allowing freedom of speech away from the traffic medians, as a compromise. Hopefully, Biddeford will consider similar measures if the problem persists farther south.

If we could all simply agree as a society to stop giving money to panhandlers, this unsightly, dehumanizing practice would be more likely to end, and our donations could be redirected to social service agencies that actually help people get out of poverty.

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Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].