Panhandling: Problem or symptom?

Published 9:52 pm Monday, March 14, 2016

There is, without a doubt, a homelessness problem in Suffolk. Organizations such as the Coalition Against Poverty in Suffolk and the Genieve Shelter have been serving more people than ever during the past year — the former with its Night Stay program at various churches around the city and the latter with its program for battered women and families of single mothers. ForKids, which used to operate a shelter in the downtown area, still provides services to homeless families, even though it suspended its residential program.

But is homelessness — or even poverty — behind the recent rise in panhandling in North Suffolk? That question is hard to answer.

To be sure, the folks who stand in the medians of shopping centers in Harbour View appear to be in great need. Their signs tell stories of loss and suffering, sometimes even explicitly noting the homeless status of the bedraggled men and women who take donations from passersby waiting at the various lights. Their clothes are tattered, their faces downcast and their demeanor crying out for help.


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And yet…

And yet there are questions. Why now? Why Harbour View? Why not downtown? Where do they go at night? What to make of all the reports of organized panhandling efforts supported by vans and trucks populating the intersections with unfortunate-looking people in the morning and then picking them up in the evening?

Harbour View has not always been a magnet for panhandling. That only started in the past year or so, as the area has grown and become a retail hub for the city. Was there no problem with homelessness there before that area became a rich target for handouts? What about downtown Suffolk, where panhandling is comparatively rare? Are there no homeless people downtown, or is the lack of that activity merely evidence that people looking for help go where the money is? And if homeless people are going from the downtown area to North Suffolk to try to raise money, how are they getting there? Is panhandling the problem itself or merely a symptom of the problem of poverty?

If there is a true community of homeless people in North Suffolk, where are they staying at night? There have been no reports of tent cities nor of people sleeping on sidewalks nor of any of the other things that would be evidence of homelessness on a scale that would support the number of panhandlers North Suffolk has seen in recent months. Lack of evidence does not prove the problem does not exist, but reasonable people can be expected to reasonably wonder about these things.

On the other hand, many recent personal accounts have raised red flags about people being transported to the area and dropped off with their signs and backpacks, about panhandlers being seen getting on scooters and driving away from the area and about some being offered work and declining or failing to show up. Again, reasonable people can easily develop reasonable doubts about the situations.

Suffolk City Council will consider a new ordinance to address panhandling on Wednesday. Acknowledging the constitutional matters of free speech and free assembly, the city still has a right and a responsibility to protect citizens — both drivers and panhandlers — from harm. The new ordinance is a good step toward doing both.

The next step should be a full investigation of the services Suffolk can and should offer for those who are truly in such dire straits that they would turn to begging for money on street corners.