Panhandling, a way of life for some, but not a concern for local law enforcement

DOVER —On a recent cloudy afternoon, a man dressed in jean shorts and a blue graphic tee carried a cardboard sign.

He was walking back and forth across Route 108 near Chili’s at Weeks Crossing, then toward the intersection which heads to Route 16.

He said he is homeless in Rochester, and identified himself only as a 28-year-old whose name is "Evan."

"I’m just trying to make a little bit of money," he said, adding he had been standing near the intersection for a couple of hours.

Portland, Maine, resident Steve Huston, 53, who spent 40 years homeless in Maine, says "running a sign" or panhandling, asking temporarily-stopped drivers for a dollar, is one of the more humiliating experiences of being homeless.

But it’s an absolute necessity.

"If you make $20 a day panhandling, you’ve had a good day," Huston said. "We’re not talking about luxury money here. We’re talking about survival."

One day of panhandling, the 53-year-old recalls, can only last for a few hours.

"No one can put up too long with the scrutiny, the cat calls and ‘You’re a bum, get a job,’" he said. "It’s kind of degrading and to do that for longer than a couple of hours is just not good for your mental health state."

He said he remembers one time he was standing on the street when his grandmother pulled up. He said he felt ashamed.

"How much more embarrassed can you get than having your grandma see you panhandling?"

Today, Huston receives disability assistance and lives in a subsidized housing unit in Portland, Maine. He serves as a member of the group Homeless Voices for Justice.

Last month, controversy brewed in Portland when the city council contemplated passing an ordinance to ban people from all walks of life from hanging out on the median strip near roadways. Huston says he was insulted. He felt like it was another prejudicial step being taken against those who need a helping hand.

"People don’t like to see homelessness," he said, adding he felt like perhaps the community would rather the homeless, "be out of sight."

While the ordinance never came to pass, law enforcement officials in New Hampshire were asked to reflect on what a measure like that could bring to the region.

Recently, the Conway Daily Sun reported panhandling has become a growing issue in their area, but in Dover, officials said they haven’t considered the issue to be severe enough to pass an ordinance.

The Dover Police Department admitted while there are a few well-known areas for panhandling, including near Chili’s on the Dover-Somersworth line, the problem isn’t severe enough to pass a city law.

"The police department doesn’t see it as a major issue," said Capt. Bill Breault. "We feel comfortable with the other statutes that are in effect (so) we could safely address (any) issue, should it become a problem, without involving anybody’s first amendment rights."

Breault explained for the most part local panhandlers are cooperative and police only tend to interfere when they feel the person is affecting traffic patterns or in danger. If a person is being disorderly or soliciting aggressively, or even publicly intoxicated, he said other statutes are in place for officers to properly address the incident and a median strip ordinance wouldn’t be necessary.

"The police department takes the approach that panhandling is protected by the first amendment. We don’t stop a person from asking for money," he said. "We’re more concerned that they’re safe."

Capt. Paul Toussaint of the Rochester Police Department similarly said in his city, the few panhandlers known to officers move along "for the most part" when asked.

"We do fairly frequently get calls about panhandling. It’s generally in the entrances to parking lots, like the Home Depot or Walmart," he said. "We don’t have a lot of median strips and certainly not like in Portland. We haven’t run into that type of issue."

Somersworth Police Capt. Russell Timmons echoed some of his colleagues’ sentiments, adding "we really don’t see it." For the city of Somersworth to seriously consider an ordinance like the one in Portland, he said, there would have to be an evaluation of the impact of it on the community.

"You’d have to look seriously at your impact to the community and impact to the immediacy of what’s going on in the intersections," he said. Panhandling is discouraged if those on the street interfere with street traffic in anyway, he said.

Bob O’Connell, director of My Friend’s Place, which serves as a temporary housing solution for those in need in Dover, said those staying with the organization are discouraged from panhandling.

He noted at any one time, 17 to 25 people are staying at My Friend’s Place and are in need. He said the issues of homelessness and severe poverty continues to be prevalent in the area.

"We have people from all over the Strafford County area," he said.

Donna Yellen, director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and advocacy for Preble Street, a Portland, Maine-based social service agency for juveniles, women, and the homeless, said the issue appears to be on the rise in her area as the economy continues to flounder and many more struggle.

"We hit the 400 (person) mark in the city of Portland providing shelter this last month, and that’s the most we’ve seen in the last 25 years we’ve been keeping track," said Yellen. "People who have lost so much they’re standing on the side of the road asking for help means those people have pretty much gotten to a pretty low place in their life and we feel that’s our job as neighbors to be able to say, ‘Well, what can we do in our community so that people don’t feel that they have to be standing on a median?’"

She said Preble Street continues to hone its efforts to offer more services to the severely impoverished so panhandling doesn’t need to be the only option. She estimated only 5 percent of the homeless she has encountered in her life actually partake in the activity.

"They will definitely say that they feel ashamed," she said.

Huston has a fairly positive outlook on his experiences, though he said he has been on and off the streets since he was 12, when his family situation fell apart. As for his current stable living situation, he said it wouldn’t matter if he was back to being homeless tomorrow.

"I’ve grown accustomed to just going with the flow," he said.

He asked people to reconsider their judgmental thoughts when they see someone on the side of the street and, perhaps, consider the things that they take for granted everyday.

"Other people have no problem going to buy a soda or a cup of coffee, but when you’re homeless, people take exception to your panhandling. They think you’re automatically taking the money and doing drugs," he said. "But surviving on the street, it’s everything that someone takes for granted, like buying yourself a cup of coffee or a cheeseburger — just something you’d really like to eat, instead of what they give you in the soup kitchen. Other people take that for granted."