Panhandling Proposals: Politicians Pretending to Do Something

The most recent public discussions about panhandling remind me of the great sage Yogi Berra’s reference to “deja vu all over again.” We’ve done this before.

Commissioner Montagnino’s New and Apparently Useless Penal Code Proposal to Stop Panhandling Gets Rejected by Council

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino, to great fanfare, announced his proposed new City Ordinance Chapter 55 titled Aggressive Solicitation to the City code.

This is a prime example of a politician responding to an intransigent problem with the illusion of a solution.

As stated by Commissioner Montagnino, this code enforcement language was taken from one adopted by the City of Rochester. He told the media that the language of the code had withstood numerous court challenges.

He conveniently passed over the history of Rochester’s code, however. It was adopted in 2004 and included special fines, but Betty McBride, a clerk in the office of the Rochester Chief of Police, told Saratoga Today:

It’s a city code, but they don’t give tickets. They choose not to. What we do is we try to help out; offer resources to get shelter, get clothing and food.

Betty McBride

So if they do not actually use the code to give tickets to enforce limits on panhandling, it doesn’t sound like Rochester’s code has any record of impacting panhandling.

At the July 2, 2022, Council meeting, Commissioner Montagnino presented his proposed code. At the public hearing, speakers spoke for and against the proposal. Most of those speaking against the proposal focused on the vagueness of the term “aggressive” and expressed concern over criminalizing the homeless and the lack of affordable housing.

When the proposal came up on the agenda, there was a rambling discussion among Council members over whether to table the proposal, fund a study, or put a sunset clause on the code. Usually, Council members in the past who wanted support for an initiative would have one on one conversations with their fellow Council members to explain their proposal, listen to and try to address any concerns before taking it for a vote at the Council table. This is a useful strategy that can result in a better proposal coming to the table that will have majority support or maybe the dropping of a proposal because these discussions made clear that it wouldn’t have the votes to pass. Listening to Council members ask the most basic questions about this legislation made me wonder if Montagnino had bothered to do this.

The most thoughtful comment came from Public of WorksCommissioner Jason Golub:

The resolution failed with Montagnino and Mayor Kim voting yes and Finance Commissioner Sanghvi, Public Works Commissioner Golub, and Accounts Commissioner Moran voting no.

Mayor Kim and Chamber of Commerce Executive Todd Shimkus Repackage a Failed Policy

Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus and Mayor Kim drew extensive media coverage for a plan to hand homeless panhandlers a card rather than money. The card lists the services available to homeless people.

I ran the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (now re-branded as LifeWorks) for sixteen years and had plenty of interactions with homeless people over that time. Many homeless people often suffer from mental, alcohol, and drug problems. Still, it is the rare homeless person who has not learned through their network about what community services are available.

This card policy is especially aggravating because this same program, carried out during the Joanne Yepsen administration, was a resounding failure, and Mr. Shimkus knows this.

I have talked to one of the downtown business owners who told me that, as far as they know, no businesses are using the cards. When you think about it, how are they supposed to use these cards? Are they supposed to give a stack to each customer?

I advise anyone that handing one of these cards to an unknown panhandler is not a good idea. Giving them one of these cards rather than money invites a potentially very unpleasant interaction.

How About Deploying a Police Officer on Foot to Patrol the Downtown?

Unless a police officer observes a crime, it is difficult to successfully ticket anyone. As Commissioner Montagnino conceded during the August 2, 2022, meeting, an accusation is hard to prove without supporting evidence such as witnesses or video.

One owner of a downtown business told me there was a time when the city assigned a police officer on foot to patrol downtown. They noted that while it wasn’t a panacea, it did act to lessen the general aggressiveness of panhandlers. If Commissioner Montagnino really wants to do something, he should find a way to deploy officers on the street again.

11 thoughts on “Panhandling Proposals: Politicians Pretending to Do Something”

  1. For anyone who wants to understand homelessness beyond the empty talk of politicians and the fearmongering by some, I strongly recommend “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” (link below). As the title suggests, the situation won’t be fixed by cards, or fines, or police officers shooing the unhoused off Broadway. The city is in desperate need of affordable housing, and hopefully a City Council at some point will finally stand up to the NIMBY crowd that trots out phony environmental or infrastructure concerns to mask their own selfish desire not have their property value go down.


  2. Though I don’t recall ever being confronted by what I would describe as an ‘aggressive panhandler’ in Saratoga Springs, I can’t imagine that the Mayor or Commissioner Montagnino would be making up stories about regular complaints. Aggressive panhandling measures have been enacted across the US and the world, not just in Rochester. Such an ordinance in Saratoga Springs would be used only to curb aggressive panhandling, not panhandling in general. There seems to be a definition of ‘aggressive panhandling’ that is universally consistent and has been incorporated into Commissioner Montagnino’s proposal. It seems to me to be a workable effort to curb the few instances where panhandling behavior becomes excessive. Our success is fragile. The success of our downtown can only continue if residents and visitors feel comfortable and safe.

    I do not agree with John that Commissioner Golub’s comments were the most thoughtful. His question ‘egregious to whom’ seems to imply that the ordinance can’t work because citizens are not capable of judging fairly whether another person’s behavior is sufficiently offensive. His comment about the rich, white lady complaining to the police about a homeless person was filled with unfortunate stereotyping and wrongful assumptions. There was no good reason to use an expletive at the Council table and that word is not French. His question of how the ordinance would change the lives of the homeless should have evoked a response that it wouldn’t but that it might help the business owners and merchants in our downtown who have worked hard to stay afloat during difficult times and it might make our downtown a more comfortable community gathering place for all to enjoy.

    The ordinance probably would not result in frequent court appearances. As John noted in his paragraph about the ill-advised homeless panhandler cards, word on the street spreads rapidly. An aggressive panhandler might tone down his or her behavior once such an ordinance was passed. Also, the police most frequently issue warnings to violators of such ordinances before taking a more official step. The police would not be able to issue an appearance ticket or make an arrest simply because a ‘rich, white lady’ complained. They would have to witness the behavior themselves. They would first observe to see if the behavior is taking place, then probably explain to the panhandler that he or she is in violation of an ordinance and suggest that they move along. An appearance ticket or an arrest would result only from proof of repeated instances of aggressive panhandling.

    I agree with the downtown business people cited by John who advocate for bringing foot patrols back to downtown. The reason that there are so few foot patrols is because it ties up an officer who is then not able to respond calls in other parts of the City and because, due to advances in technology, the police car has become an integral part of policing. If Commissioner Montagnino’s desire to bring back the traffic division takes place, police response will be even more compromised. Other municipalities with busy tourist seasons hire part-time or seasonal officers as needed. I often speak to the summer bike patrol officers who work in Wells Beach, Maine. They are college students, some of whom are majoring in criminal justice programs. Saratoga Springs used to have a group of summer foot patrol officers from June through August. Maybe such an option should be considered.

    Chris Mathiesen

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Speaking of panhandling (by way of inflation), a couple of months ago I was in Oceanside CA, near San Diego, waiting for a local bus. A scruffy gentleman came over and asked if I could spare $20. His mission unfulfilled, he then went over to a woman sitting on another bench 15 feet away and asked if he could borrow $25. That was a 25% increase in 30 seconds!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Saratoga has pretty good support services for those that need food or shelter. The people who fall between the cracks are normally non-veteran older men or women with significant substance abuse issues or criminal problems. If you offer too much, more of this demographic will be attracted to this place. Mental retardation is generally classified as those scoring below a 70 on a standard instrument for IQ. These people get better services than the 70-85 bracket, which is marginally employable. There is no simple labor suitable for these folks anymore. In the past, you could use people for a variety of tasks in agriculture or industry, which would have allowed them to earn a descent living.

    People who have origins in this area should not be panhandling, and people should not give panhandlers money, because they are usually transient and we do not want to encourage the behavior. They will find a more permissible place where people have softer hearts.

    The real solution here is universal housing vouchers and food ration cards (SNAP). If you aggregate all the money trying to fix the problem at the local, state, federal and charity levels, the universal program is a lot less expensive.


    1. “The people who fall between the cracks are normally non-veteran older men or women with significant substance abuse issues or criminal problems.” You have a source for that, or you just feel comfortable using stereotypes like “most of the homeless are addicts, people with special needs, and/or criminals?”

      Between your baseless claims and your inhumane recommendations (“don’t help those in need that aren’t from here”), this is one of the ugliest posts I’ve seen on this blog, and I am shocked JK allowed it.


      1. @Cato

        I don’t know what you think you mean by “over-socialized”, though in a quick google search the term seemed to be used by the Unabomber in his manifesto, which isn’t a great sign for whatever point you’re trying to make. As you failed to elaborate, I don’t know what you’re trying to say that could defend your initial factually inaccurate and overly generalized post. Again, please provide any source that confirms your statement that “The people who fall between the cracks are normally non-veteran older men or women with significant substance abuse issues or criminal problems.”

        As for what I posted, it is not feelings, but facts. Research has shown no convincing relationship between mental illness and homelessness. In fact, states like Utah, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Vermont, and West Virginia all have high rates of serious mental illness, but modest levels of homelessness. Similarly, drug use occurs across the nation, not just places where there are unhoused individuals. This all points to the fact that homelessness isn’t driven by individual factors (as is seemingly the case made by yourself, without any corroborating information) , but structural, specifically the lack of affordable housing in a given region, discrimination, and inequality. Individual factors like mental health, addiction, and employment don’t cause homelessness, but when housing is scarce (as it is in Saratoga due to zoning limitations, NIMBYs turning away good projects, and an overabundance of rental properties), those vulnerabilities are magnified.

        Lastly, how exactly does your plan of “They will find a more permissible place where people have softer hearts” play out if every region takes the same approach. Absent universal programs, which don’t seem likely in the current political climate, is your position then that we just let them all die? While you don’t explicitly say that, I don’t see how else this strategy of yours works in practice if everyone turns away those in need.


  5. This is such an emotional topic. I think we all feel compassion, but we are torn between the needy ……and the panhandling abuse by others. How do we differentiate?
    One of my favorite songs… C’mon people now, smile on your brothers, everybody get together, try to love one another right now. If you hear the song I sing, you will understand……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Mike

      Oversocialization is a concept related to internalization of guilt feelings because of the plight of others.

      Ultimately, homelessness, at its most basic level is caused by someone not being able to afford housing. Basic shelter, inclusive of heating and normal utilities, is at least $1000 per month in this area. Assuming one cannot find steady work paying at least $40,000 per year (30% housing budget), there is a sequential order and massive paperwork burden to navigate to receive assistance. You need to be highly literate or have a dedicated caseworker.

      I stand by my assertion regarding ‘falling between the cracks’. Also, the only real solution is the federal voucher program, so I would propose all groups band together to get Congress to fix the problem. Full employment during a pandemic is neither economically possible or advisable from a public health standpoint, so the solutions have to change in the interest of national defense and collective health. Congress, the DoD, and our institutions are way behind the curve.


  6. John-

    To provide context: I am a retired FBI Agent that is not affiliated with any political party.

    As noted by others, on 8/2/2022, at a public meeting which was recorded, Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub, made unacceptable and divisive comments.

    Mr. Golub was discussing the merits of passing an aggressive solicitation ordinance directed at the panhandlers which he ultimately voted no. An important portion of the proposed ordinance was to prohibit panhandlers from harassing and engaging in physical contact with residents and/or tourists. As a side note, the cities of New York and Los Angeles have both passed aggressive panhandling ordinances. Besides voting no on this commonsense ordinance, he made a shocking comment about a “rich white lady.”

    Mr. Golub used a hypothetical situation where a “rich white lady” files a complaint against the panhandler. Mr. Golub essentially argued that police would side with the complainant only because she is a “rich white lady.” Clearly, Mr. Golub was suggesting a “rich white lady” would provide false testimony to a Saratoga Springs police officer and the police officer would agree with her based on her status as a “rich white lady.”

    Obviously, Mr. Golub has no understanding of the criminal justice system and how witness testimony is corroborated by law enforcement, including the Saratoga Springs Police Department, every day in America.

    It is the duty of city leaders and law enforcement to not judge a person based on their status, skin color, or sexual orientation but rather the facts of the situation.

    Again, these comments were unacceptable and divisive. He owes an apology to all city residents.


    Tim Coll
    Saratoga Springs


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: