Unintended consequences: homelessness/panhandling
It’s a fine line to draw between constitutional rights and cleaning up the streets. Since the rebirth of Patchogue Village, mayor Paul Pontieri, his trustees and the public safety department have been exploring options to address the ever-growing issue of homelessness/panhandling.
“Homelessness and parking in the village have been a concern and unintended consequences of our success,” said Pontieri. “Recently we have been bashed online by people saying we are doing nothing about it, but we walk the same streets as everyone else and we wrestle with this every day, working hard to get something done.”
Though it is difficult to control, Pontieri said that homelessness is not a crime and people have the constitutional right to sit on benches, walk the streets and even sleep in public. “All we can do is move them along, but they can’t be arrested for it,” he said.
In an effort to control the amount of homeless and ease panhandling, he said he has spoken to various local churches and the Suffolk County Police Department, who have helped move people along and reduce the number of people sleeping on the United Methodist Church’s steps as well as in the community garden on Terry Street.
“It’s extremely frustrating to control, but the local law has helped reduce aggressive panhandling; they have the right to ask for money, but they do not have the right to ask in a threatening manner,” he added.
In October of last year, the village board unanimously passed a new “aggressive panhandling” code allowing public safety officers to issue summonses to those who solicit another in an aggressive manner, which has been defined as intentionally or recklessly causing physical contact, putting someone in the position of fear of bodily harm, or anything that might entice fear, such as following or blocking someone or using bad language. It also made it prohibitive to solicit someone using an ATM within a certain distance or any business with an ATM inside, such as a bank, or someone in a parking garage, bus shelter or at a meter.
The legislation was implemented to protect people from threatening, intimidating or harassing behavior, explained village attorney Brian Egan. Egan, back in October acknowledged that vagrancy is difficult to control being that it brings up First Amendment issues and panhandling in itself is not illegal. However, he said it’s not that it is done but rather how it is done. The legislation opened up aggressive panhandling and soliciting people for money at ATMs as enforceable. However, according to director of public safety Jim Berberich, it still has been difficult to enforce and, since implementation of the code, only a handful — about five — summonses have been issued.
“It’s really hard to write them because an officer has to observe their behavior and the civilian has to be willing to take their complaint to court,” he explained. “And no one wants to argue with a homeless person in court. But finally we are getting a few people starting to testify and summonses are picking up. We would hate people to see this statute that has been on the books for almost a year but we only wrote five summonses and they think we aren’t enforcing it.”
Recently, to help address the issue, Berberich has been instructing two foot-patrol officers to walk Main Street and the surrounding area from 2-6 p.m. They are instructed to encourage the homeless to move along as well as issue them documentation for shelters and resources available to them.
According to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, in Nassau and Suffolk counties alone, just under 3,000 people were homeless or in transitional/emergency housing in 2017, a slight uptick from 2016’s 2,884 number.
“My heart really goes out to the homeless — it’s upsetting,” said trustee Sal Felice. “But to say we aren’t doing anything about it is wrong. There is no one who works harder in the village than mayor Pontieri, reaching out to the right people looking for the right answers.” Trustee Tom Ferb agreed, but in fear of sounding cruel said the worst thing to do is give the homeless money. “It just reinforces their behavior,” he said.
Deputy mayor Jack Krieger said in addition to the panhandling, complaints of drug dealing activity went hand in hand. He suggested those who witness something suspicious immediately call the police department or 631-852-NARC, a special number dedicated to dealing with drug-related activity. “They need to know we are watching them, know what is going on and are not going to tolerate it,” he said.
Berberich, Pontieri, Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) and the community clergy plan to meet with the Long Island Homeless Coalition to find possible solutions later this month. Pontieri suggested instead of “bashing” the village for not doing anything to address the issue, those with serious solutions or ideas to the problem come forward. “I would first like to apologize if people believe we haven’t done enough, but hope those with ideas come to us,” he added. “Please don’t assume we are ignoring this.”
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