Manchester, N.H. Police Revive Mission to Curb Roadside Panhandlers

Police in Manchester, New Hampshire, have pushed to reduce panhandling on their streets, stating that giving money to panhandlers exacerbates rates of overdose in the area. As the opioid epidemic continues throughout the United States—notably so, in marginalized communities—the police department’s linking of panhandling to the epidemic has reignited a debate about how society should treat panhandlers and whether punishing them criminalizes the homeless.

Manchester Police Chief Enoch Willard released an open letter to the community on June 7 expressing his fluent understanding of the social and institutional barriers faced by panhandlers, including poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues. He also expressed an understanding of the fact that these dilemmas are not solved by simply enforcing the law.

“[These] social conditions do not make a person a criminal, yet it increasingly seems that the expectation of the public is to treat them as criminals, by rooting out panhandlers from any given street or sidewalk,” Chief Willard said in the letter.

The letter also stated, however, that while panhandlers and motorists donating their money are within their constitutional rights, these exchanges may be causing deaths. “I fully understand that those who give to panhandlers do so from a place of generosity, but I ask you to consider what is the reality of the person that is left in the wake of this kindness,” said Chief Willard. “Do they realize they may actually be contributing to or even encouraging the panhandler’s social challenges?”

According to Manchester Police Department records, 24 people involved in panhandling have overdosed between 2015 and June 1, 2017; six of the people died as a result.

In the wake of Chief Willard’s letter, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire released a statement praising his sensitivity to the issue.

“We appreciate Chief Willard’s measured and thoughtful memorandum addressing panhandling in Manchester. As Chief Willard indicated, peaceful panhandling in public places is, while often unpopular, speech protected by the First Amendment,” the statement read. “We also fully support Chief Willard’s belief that panhandling is not exclusively a criminal enforcement issue and that these individuals should not be treated as criminals.”

While the friction between the ACLU of New Hampshire and the Manchester Police Department has eased somewhat in the current panhandling discussion, the two entities have been at odds over the issue in the past. Last year, the ACLU, alongside New Hampshire Legal Assistance, filed a federal lawsuit against the police department—which is still in the process of litigation—after a handful of panhandlers were cited for disorderly conduct without warning. The ACLU and NHLA saw this as part of a national trend in which aspects of homelessness are being criminalized. They called these actions taken by the police unconstitutional, as the panhandlers were within their rights and did not at any time step into traffic.

“Asking for assistance in a public space should never be a crime,” Elliot Berry, an attorney at NHLA who was part of the case, said.

Chief Willard stated that the police department needs to move past simply trying to punish panhandlers and instead teach motorists how to better aid those struggling with poverty, mental health and drug addiction; he says that donating to social services dedicated to these struggles can do more than just giving money while on the road. Meanwhile, the ACLU said it will continue to make sure incidents such as last year’s won’t happen again.

“As the city considers alternative approaches to addressing panhandling, the ACLU is willing to be a resource to ensure that free speech is protected,” it said.

Zach Mobrice is an intern at Spare Change News. A native of Rhode Island, Zach studies journalism at Roger Williams University.

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