At Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, there was a discussion about recent complaints from residents about panhandlers by Exit 5 in Riverside, Exit 2 in Byram and Exit 3 in downtown.
“Some are passive, just standing there with their hands out, or cups out. Others are more aggressive in terms of approaching drivers and interrupting traffic flow,” said Barbara Heins from the First Selectman’s office, who had researched the issue. “We have been in contact with Human Services when we receive these reports, and on multiple occasions they have dispatched case workers to give offers of assistance to the panhandlers, specifically to Exit 5.”
“Unfortunately those offers of assistance are being ignored,” she said. “Appointments may be made at times to come into Human Services, but then they break them. They do not show up to those appointments.”
Ms Heins researched panhandling ordinances in other Connecticut towns, as well as the possibility of installing signs, such as the those in Stamford that say panhandling is unsafe and provide instructions for people to donate money for distribution to various social services and human services agencies. The signage advises panhandlers to call 211 and / or to go to the city website.
Heins said at least a dozen cities and towns in Connecticut had enacted ordinances, and they are almost identical in wording. The ordinances call for citations with fines from $50 to $250 per offense.
She said if the Selectmen decided to install signs at I95 exit ramps, which are in the State right of way, that would require permission from Connecticut Dept of Transportation and the process might be long and involved.
Heins also said creating an ordinance would require drafting, submission before Selectmen and ultimately going before the RTM for approval. In the meantime, she noted panhandling would likely continue.
First Selectman Camillo said he’d received calls about possible scams among some of the panhandlers, which he said were being investigated by police.
In general he advised residents not to give money to panhandlers.
“The problem is the more you do that, the more they will stay there,” he said.
Camillo said news Channel 12 did a piece on the topic earlier in the week, and a reporter mentioned one panhandler had reported making $2,500 a week.
“If you give money you may not be solving the underlying problem,” he added. “We want them to be off the streets, safe and secure and making money in a way that won’t put them in danger, and make an honest living.”
“I’m definitely in favor of an ordinance that does not violate anyone’s constitutional rights to be out there,” he said. “It would have to be tailored narrowly, but with the best interest of the general public and panhandlers.”
Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigan agreed the answer was not to give money, but she did not want to violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.
“We need to support our social services organizations and direct people to those organizations,” she said. “There is an awful lot of car exhaust that panhandlers are inhaling. I’m also concerned that some of these women are being exploited.”
Camillo recalled several years ago when he was a State Rep, that a panhandler in Riverside was accompanied by a young child. He said at the time there was talk about a law to address children being exploited, but an unintended consequence might, for example, impact Girl Scouts selling cookies.
During public comment, Father McIntosh, pastor at St Roch Church said panhandlers had recently made their way to his church’s steps.
“We had a situation at the church with a woman with her child, and a man, and a sign. I believe these are the same ones seen at Exit 5 and Exit 2,” he said.
He added that just before the church’s 12:00 mass, which is in Spanish, parishioners informed him of the situation on the church steps.
He said by the time he went out to see what was happening, the people had crossed the street to the Hamilton Avenue School parking lot.
“They had left because my parishioners had chased them away and threatened to call the police,” McIntosh said. “And apparently there was a confrontation, and they were screaming back, saying, ‘Call the police because we’re allowed to be here.'”
McIntosh said afterward he brought the incident to the attention of the police chief who advised him to call 911 if it occurred again.
“It does occur in places other than the exits. The church steps are an easy mark. We have our church doors open all day to invite people in, but it’s to invite people in to pray, not to panhandle.”
There were no other comments. The item was left open.