[Story from April 5 Gazette by Stephen WIlliams On Panhandling Forum]
Saratoga Springs plans forum on aggressive panhandling
By Stephen Williams May 4, 2016
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A problem with panhandling in downtown Saratoga Springs is growing, city officials said, and a Public Safety Department forum later this month will be devoted to the issue.
The forum is being scheduled as a public petition circulates calling for the city to do something about aggressive panhandling, and a week after a dozen homeless people were arrested on trespassing charges, based on complaints from private property owners.
The number of complaints the city has received about people aggressively asking passersby for money on or near Broadway’s busy sidewalks is increasing. There’s a debate about whether those begging are local homeless, or hustlers coming from elsewhere.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen has scheduled a public forum for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at City Hall, which will be devoted to the issue and its nuances.
“There are no simple, straightforward solutions at all,” Mathiesen said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
In a post on its Facebook page following the arrests, the Saratoga Springs Police Department said homelessness isn’t a crime, but those who break laws will continue to be arrested.
Simply asking other people for money is considered constitutionally protected free speech, though doing so in an aggressive manner can become a crime.
“There’s been a rapidly growing number of complaints,” said Mayor Joanne Yepsen. “I’m getting complaints and emails about panhandling.”
Yepsen, who helped start the Code Blue homeless shelter in 2013 and has worked on homelessness issues since becoming mayor, believes many of the problems are being caused by people who aren’t local, and come into the city to beg because panhandling is more profitable in the city, where downtown sidewalks are commonly crowded with people.
“The aggressive panhandlers we are seeing that are really causing trouble are not homeless,” Yepsen asserted.
Yepsen said the public needs to stop giving panhandlers money. The Downtown Business Association is planning to install drop-boxes in the next few weeks where people can leave money that will be used to help the homeless, as an alternative to giving money directly to those who ask.
“Begging is not illegal, but aggressive, touching behavior is,” Yepsen said. “Blocking somebody’s path is illegal.”
The Shelters of Saratoga homeless shelter operates the overnight cold weather Code Blue and a once-a-week daytime drop-in program, but those staying at the shelter must refrain from substance abuse and agree to counseling — something some homeless won’t do.
“A majority of these people are suffering from mental illness. They’re not getting their medication, so what is happening? They self-medicate,” said Michael Finnochi, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga.
Yepsen said her office is working on the idea of a permanent daytime drop-in shelter for the homeless, but lacks a spot for it and is without major private financial assistance.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she’d be willing to spend the money to put more police patrols on the street, though there’s not yet a cost estimate for that. “I think that’s an expense the city is willing to bear,” she said.
Accounts Commissioner John Franck, who owns a building on Broadway, said he has regular encounters with disruptive people and has witnessed public urination.
“I don’t know what the solution is. I do know there’s a problem,” Franck said.
The May 19 forum is expected to include representatives of the Police Department, the city attorney’s office, Shelters of Saratoga and Wellspring, which offers emergency and shelter services and domestic violence and assault victims.