Panhandling Public Hearing Tonight

There’s a public hearing tonight (City Hall, 6:30 pm) on the proposed panhandling ordinance. The full ordinance can be downloaded as part of the CC packet here (click on the book icon above the agenda items to download the entire packet as a pdf). In summary, it defines panhandling as:

…the solicitation of any item of value, monetary or otherwise, made by a person, other than an exempt organization, acting on his/her own behalf, attempting to sell and item for an amount far exceeding its value, or an item which is already offered free-of-charge to the general public…

It prohibits panhandling in the Downtown Lowell Historic District, which is roughly all of downtown including lower Back Central, a buffer along the Pawtucket and Northern Canals, and the blocks which include the American Textile History Museum and Gallagher Terminal.

Penalties may include criminal and noncriminal dispositions. In either case, it is punishable by  “$50 for each day during which the activity is committed, continued, or permitted.”

This comes on the heels of the clearing of many homeless camps in the City. Here’s one of many Sun articles about it. As one Facebook commenter in an open forum said, this resulted in:

…pushing the homeless camps up my way on the train tracks of n Chelmsford as opposed to under a bridge or in sites where no one else lives. They are not gone. Homelessness is a symptom of substance use, trauma and mental illness. The city released an rfr recently that was due Oct 31st. It was specifically in response to clearing out the camps. It is for tenant based rental.assistance and clearly states NO SERVICES

I haven’t had the opportunity to fact-check that, but it seems in-line with mainstream thinking on tackling homeless problems. I’d encourage anybody interested, especially those who are, work with, or are otherwise directly affected by homeless or panhandling populations to come to the hearing to share their expertise or research.

Aurora and I discussed it, and she summarized our opinions thusly:

I have a couple of concerns about it. I’m worried about a lack of commitment to outreach about the law and alternative options to panhandlers, creating a larger gulf between police (and social services) and the homeless population, and logistics of paying the fine. I’m also not sure what happens if the perpetrator cannot or will not pay a fine. Is this going to get people thrown in jail? Finally, I worry it will just “push” the problem to other areas of the City without addressing root issues.

Although safety, real and perceived, is a very necessary issue to tackle to continue revitalizing Lowell’s downtown, it is also necessary to recognize the panhandling population is diverse. I am familiar with this demographic from working in a substance abuse clinic back in Illinois, and if Lowell is in any way similar, there’s a mix of folks that have homes and don’t have homes; people that feel comfortable accepting social services and those who do not trust, have too much pride, or have other philosophical issues with current social services; and those with substance abuse problems, with mental illness, and those just honestly down on their luck. I believe that each of these groups requires a different strategy.

Kad Barma at Choosing a Soundtrack shares his opinions here.


2 thoughts on “Panhandling Public Hearing Tonight

  1. Unrelated to the public hearing I got a chance to speak with Bill Lipschitz (sp?) who runs Community Teamwork. I asked him about the tent camps being displaced and whether assistance is available to them. He did tell me that the city is trying to drive the affected people to the aid CTI can provide but he also mentioned all of the problems you’ve written about here. The whole leading a horse to water dilemma.

    He mentioned the degree to which things like substance abuse and mental illness interfere with lifting these people out if the situation they’re in.

    I don’t know what can be done and I agree that real solutions don’t seem to be on offer. It’s hard to tell if forcing them to tent elsewhere is worse than the status quo.

  2. One more thing. The CTI board is comprised of equal parts community, private sector and city officials. There’s a vacancy for. Private sector trustee.

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