2013-03-07 / Front Page

If it doesn’t look good, stop the handouts

DDC decides not to pursue an ordinance and opts for education instead
By Molly Lovell-Keely Managing Editor


Mark Crowley, 53, has lived in Saco for a year with his elderly mother in an apartment. He is originally from Medway, Mass., and has lived in Colorado and Key West, Fla. for 10 years. He said he lived on his boat in Florida for some time and was the manager of a guest house there. Crowley said he averages $60 a day, but less as of late. On good days he collects more than $100. On average he puts $100 into savings a week. The rest goes to food and living expenses. (Jason Morneau photo) Mark Crowley, 53, has lived in Saco for a year with his elderly mother in an apartment. He is originally from Medway, Mass., and has lived in Colorado and Key West, Fla. for 10 years. He said he lived on his boat in Florida for some time and was the manager of a guest house there. Crowley said he averages $60 a day, but less as of late. On good days he collects more than $100. On average he puts $100 into savings a week. The rest goes to food and living expenses. (Jason Morneau photo) BIDDEFORD – A city commission has listened to complaints about panhandling, specifically downtown, and initiated a conversation about what, if anything, officials can do to curb it.

Brian Keely, who is chairman of the Downtown Development Commission (and the husband of Courier Managing Editor Molly Lovell-Keely), said he hears dozens of complaints a week about the issue.


A man who said he’s a Saco resident panhandles in downtown Biddeford Tuesday. (Jason Morneau photo) A man who said he’s a Saco resident panhandles in downtown Biddeford Tuesday. (Jason Morneau photo) “It’s not just the downtown. I see them over by Walmart and across the street at Home Depot,” he said.

Dan Ducharme, owner of DAD’s Smokeshop on Alfred Street and Downtown Dollar on Main Street, said a woman came into his store, shaken up because a man had just asked her for money.

Essentially, the solution that came from Monday’s meeting was, if residents stop giving money to people, they will go away. Downtown Development Commission members tabled the issue rather than pursue a city ordinance, but agreed to educate the public about curbing their giving to panhandlers.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre said he remembers a time when he would see 75 to 150 pigeons congregating on the corner of Bacon and Hill streets, which he said was unhealthy because of the amount of feces the birds produced.

“Someone kept feeding them. As long as people find a need to give (panhandlers) money, they will proliferate,” he said.

However, Beaupre said he doesn’t recommend the city enact an anti-panhandling ordinance because it challenges first amendment rights and poses enforcement issues.

“The problem is, you can have an individual stop someone and ask for money . . . someone could find it equally as offensive if a nun comes to you and says ‘Can I borrow $5.’ They’re both the same. The problem in the courts is dealing with the difference between the two,” he said.

Beaupre said for some people, encountering volunteers for the Salvation Army outside Walmart during the holidays is the same as being asked for money on the street from a stranger who says he needs to eat.

Grady Sexton, owner of Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV on the corner of Alfred and Main streets, said one particular panhandler has made it uncomfortable for people to visit his business. He also said the man has ventured into traffic to ask for money, something Beaupre said violates state law.

“He cannot step into traffic or impede its normal flow. (If he does) then we have a traffic violation,” Beaupre said, adding he recently assigned a cruiser to watch the man to determine if he stepped into traffic.

“When he sees the cruiser he disappears,” Beaupre said.

Sexton said the man now stands at the corner of Alfred and Jefferson streets in the empty lot next to Coasters, referred to by one member as “beggars’ corner,” and crosses the street to the 7-Eleven store. When cars are stopped at the light, he holds up a sign to drivers as they wait.

Beaupre agreed that panhandlers probably detract from the image of downtown Biddeford, but some say the same about tattoo parlors, head shops and secondhand stores.

“How do you create laws that benefit everyone, protect a certain class and harm others,” he asked.

Ducharme asked if it’s legal for panhandlers to solicit on sidewalks.

“It is, as long as they’re not impeding the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk,” Beaupre said.

Downtown Development Commission Member Brian Mawhinney asked if would be legal for him to stand next to a panhandler with a sign urging passersby not to give him money. That too would be legal.

Keely said Vicky Edgerly, Biddeford’s health and welfare director, suggested anyone who solicits money on public property obtain a permit from the city. Keely said the city could waive the fee for organizations such the Boy or Girl Scouts, hoping it would deter panhandlers.

Beaupre didn’t recommend such an ordinance because it would cause more work for city employees.

“And, how do you choose who pays the permit fees? The more you try to regulate, the more confusing it can become and the more unintentional issues you could have,” he said.

Beaupre did say if someone asking for money blocks a passerby on the sidewalk and makes them uncomfortable, an officer can cite the alleged offender.

“But when we cite somebody, can that person who felt intimidated be produced in court? We are merely the signing agent. We are acting upon your complaint. Unless the witness is willing to appear in court, there is no case,” he said.

Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson said he agrees with the chief that enacting a city ordinance may not be the best idea, and thinks if people stop giving to panhandlers, the issue will subside.

“It may put pressure on those guys and they’ll say ‘Hey, the jig is up,’” Stevenson said.

“You and I agree the guys holding up the signs is contrary to the image we want to set forth in Biddeford. How we want to address that should be creative. We’ve got to turn this negative – what you consider a negative – and deal with it in a positive way,” Beaupre added. “I don’t think legislating it will work. You’re going to have equal resistance out of this.”

An option, Beaupre said, is to assign an officer to stand near the panhandler and eventually, he will go away.

“It’s a behavior issue,” he added.

The chief said during the 1980s the city had a problem with young people congregating downtown, so the department would assign an officer to simply stand in the middle of the crowd, which eventually remedied the problem.

“It dispersed the crowd,” Beaupre said.

Sexton said he would be willing to videotape the problem corner and submit surveillance to the police department.

The chief said such evidence would be accepted, adding the department has cameras stationed on Alfred Street, near city hall, on top of the station’s antenna and other locations throughout the city.

Stevenson wondered if in addition to “starving” the behavior, if panhandling come in cycles.

“Everything comes in cycles. I’ve been here long enough to see the cycles come and go. They evolve and they disappear,” said Beaupre, who has been chief for more than 30 years.

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