Council discusses panhandlers

Published 10:15 pm Thursday, March 3, 2016

A surge in panhandling activity, primarily in North Suffolk, captured the attention of City Council during its Wednesday meeting.

Two citizens visited the meeting to ask the city to do something about the issue.

“It concerns me,” said Courtney Wolfe, who noted she has a new teenage driver in the house. “My son drives by this on a daily basis, and quite frankly, it’s a distraction to drivers of any age. Outcomes could be tragic, but they’re avoidable.”

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Wolfe said panhandlers are at up to eight different intersections throughout the College Drive and Harbour View areas every day. The increase in commercial outlets in the area seems to have encouraged the behavior.

Andrew Sweet, representing the Harbour View Homeowners Association, said some residents of the community brought the concern to him. One reported she had offered to take one of the panhandlers to a shelter, and the man said no.

While both Wolfe and Sweet said they are sympathetic to people who actually need help, Wolfe said the activity brings a “possible element of crime.”

“I don’t like it five minutes from my home,” she said.

Sweet asked the city to pass a stronger ordinance against panhandling that will curb the activity.

Currently, Police Chief Thomas Bennett said, police can crack down on panhandlers only if they are on private property or causing a traffic issue.

“Some of them know our ordinances better than my officers,” he quipped.

Members of City Council also said they had noticed the increase. Councilman Roger Fawcett floated the possibility that the panhandlers are an organized group.

“We’ve gone from a couple to now a dozen,” he said.

Councilman Donald Goldberg said he also has noticed an increase in the downtown area.

“If it’s a safety issue, we need to stop them,” he said.

City Manager Patrick Roberts said his staff is working on the issue. Police have gone out to talk to the panhandlers and “try to get a sense of what’s going on,” he said.

Social Services staff also has visited to see how they can help, Roberts said.

“Suffolk is a city where you don’t need to stand in the street and ask for money,” he said, noting recent announcements of approximately 700 new jobs at two warehouse facilities on Holland Road. “If you want to work, if you want to get help, there’s no better place than Suffolk to do that.”

City Attorney Helivi Holland said her staff is looking at creating an ordinance that would better address the issue. There is an ordinance against “aggressive” panhandling, but nobody has reported the panhandlers being aggressive, she said.

“This is not a problem unique to Suffolk,” she said, adding it is being discussed in city attorney circles. “We’re all putting our heads together.”