Edward Lane panhandles Tuesday on Exchange Street in Portland. A business group hoping to curb the practice plans to research how other communities are addressing the issue.

Edward Lane panhandles Tuesday on Exchange Street in Portland. A business group hoping to curb the practice plans to research how other communities are addressing the issue.

Edward Lane stood in a small snowbank on Exchange Street, holding a small cardboard sign: “Homeless and Disabled. Anything Helps. God Bless.”

Even in the wind and cold rain, the 49-year-old summoned a sheepish smile and offered a muted “Hello” to those passing by. Lane says he’ll use the $25 he makes on a good day in the Old Port to buy medication to treat his anxiety and depression.

“I’m doing this for a couple hours each day until I go back to the shelter,” he said. “I hate doing this.”

Panhandling, which can range from quietly holding a sign to more aggressively asking for spare change, is a sensitive topic and growing concern in Portland and cities throughout the country.

Portland already has a law against aggressive panhandling, and it tried to ban loitering and panhandling on street medians in 2013, citing public safety concerns. The law regarding street medians was challenged by several residents and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and ultimately was deemed an unconstitutional infringement on free speech by the courts.

But downtown merchants are not giving up.

Portland Downtown, a nonprofit trade group of local merchants, is launching its own effort to stem panhandling, saying it gives the city’s otherwise sparkling reputation as a tourist destination an unwelcome black eye. A special ad hoc committee of merchants will hold its first meeting Monday, according to an announcement Tuesday.

“The primary issue is that it makes residents, workers and tourists feel unsafe,” Ken Cianchette, chairman of Portland Downtown’s Pan Handling Ad-Hoc Committee, said in the announcement. “This is well-documented in tourist reviews, surveys conducted by the organization to business owners, and testimonials given by those who live, work and visit throughout the district.”

Cianchette did not respond to interview requests Tuesday afternoon. But Portland Downtown Executive Director Casey Gilbert said in an email that the group plans to research what other communities are doing about the issue before forwarding any recommendations to the full board of directors and, if necessary, Portland City Hall.

“We understand that this is a complex and nuanced issue and, as such, have established an ad-hoc committee to explore best practices across the nation and to gather feedback and ideas from the community,” Gilbert said. “As the conversation takes shape, there will be opportunities to engage with community stakeholders and potentially host a public forum in the spring, if that is what the committee recommends.”

UNDERLYING ISSUE OF HOMELESSNESS

City officials say they have not yet been contacted by the group.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he would welcome the chance to help, as long as the group does not try to make panhandling illegal. He said the only answer is to address the underlying issue of homelessness, such as by ensuring that mental health and substance abuse services are available to those who need it, and making sure there are jobs and housing available to people in need.

“We need to make sure we’re confronting it from all angles,” Strimling said.

Michelle Brooks panhandles on Commercial Street, holding a sign that reads, "Homeless. Needs Help. Anything helps. God bless." The practice is a growing concern in many cities.

Michelle Brooks panhandles on Commercial Street, holding a sign that reads, “Homeless. Needs Help. Anything helps. God bless.” The practice is a growing concern in many cities.

Portland Downtown is funded through a special tax assessment on businesses in the district roughly bounded by High, Commercial and Franklin streets and Cumberland Avenue. Gilbert said the organization provides $5,000 annually to the Milestone Foundation, the state’s only shelter for people who are actively using drugs and alcohol. Last year, the group helped raise $8,500 for the Preble Street social services agency through its Shop for a Cause program, she said.

“Portland Downtown recognizes the need for more resources and we try to contribute as best we can with our limited budget, programs and events,” Gilbert said.

She said it’s too early to say what some of the ad-hoc committee’s recommendations might be. However, other cities, including New Haven, Connecticut, have begun installing brightly colored parking-style meters where well-intentioned visitors and residents can make donations to local nonprofits rather than panhandlers. The idea behind the kiosks is to make downtown less lucrative for panhandlers, but critics argue that the meters do little to discourage panhandling and perpetuate the stereotype that panhandlers are only raising money for alcohol and drugs.

DONATION METERS SHOW MIXED RESULTS

The Associated Press reported that a dozen meters installed in Orlando, Florida, have raised about $2,250 since 2011. But Denver, Colorado, has raised $100,000 annually by using the meters, collection boxes near airport security checkpoints and a new program that allows people to text donations.

Back in 2013, when Portland business leaders were working on the median ban, Portland Downtown said it was looking into the possibility of using parking-style meters to generate donations for local nonprofits. While the city ultimately passed an ordinance, which was later overturned in court, business leaders never launched the charitable giving program.

The number of panhandlers in downtown Portland peaks with the summer tourist season and drops off during the winter.

Michelle Brooks was sitting on a Commercial Street sidewalk next to Bill’s Pizza on Tuesday afternoon, quietly holding a sign that read, “Homeless. Needs Help. Anything helps. God bless.” The 48-year-old says she lets her sign do all of the talking, although she does thank people who donate.

She makes between $20 and $40 a day, which she uses to buy cigarettes and coffee. She said she is not concerned about what local merchants might try to do in the future.

“If they tell me to leave, I leave,” she said. “I’m not a mean person.”

 


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