PORTLAND, Maine — On a recent afternoon, a man stood on a median strip holding a cardboard sign.
“Homeless, hurtin & hungry. God bless. Anything helps.”
Bearded, wearing glasses and a Red Sox shirt, he was in the middle of busy Forest Avenue and Marginal Way during 5 p.m. traffic near Trader Joe’s.
“This is how I make my money,” said the man, who said his name was Andy, he was 33 and from Portland. “I lost my job and became homeless.”
Some people give him money, he said. Others “ride by and say, ‘Get a job.’ But I only need $10 a day to get through the day.”
During a 60-minute ride around Portland last week, other panhandlers could be seen on median strips at High Street near the post office, near Marginal Way leading to Whole Foods, at State Street and Marginal Way, at Riverside and Brighton Avenue and on St. John Street as a Sea Dogs game was getting under way.
Signs read: “Sometimes we all need a little help,” “Homeless, need work, anything helps,” and “Going through hard times, anything helps!”
If a proposed ordinance before the Portland City Council passes Monday night, as some predict it will, panhandling from median strips would be banned.
Saying he’s not waiting for someone to get killed, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and the city’s Public Safety Committee are, for a second time, asking the City Council to pass an ordinance making it illegal for anyone to stand on a median strip.
In July 2012 the council said no to that same request. Since then, “there’s been an absolute explosion” of panhandling from medians, Sauschuck said.
Police: Ban is about safety
Portland already has a law that forbids aggressive panhandling. The Monday vote is aimed purely at median strips, Sauschuck said. “Panhandling is constitutionally protected. You can hold a sign and stand on a sidewalk.”
The chief shared horror stories of near-fatalities on the streets.
“In many cases there’s been people on median strips intoxicated at some level,” he said. “Some are teetering on medians as small as 8 inches wide in the middle of rush-hour traffic.”
Sauschuck said callers complain they’ve nearly hit someone who was standing in a median “and was intoxicated and fell into traffic or passed out. We hear that over and over again.”
Callers want police to do something about it, but since the council voted 6-3 last year to allow people to be on medians, there’s little police can do.
Common sense says no one should be able to stand or loiter on a median strip for any reason, whether they’re panhandling, campaigning, selling Halloween costumes or pizza, the chief said.
When the council takes up the matter Monday, Sauschuck said he’ll be better prepared than last July. He’ll present more detailed, personal testimonies, and more numbers of near misses.
His goal is not to stop panhandling but to get it out of the middle of streets.
“That’s our sole intention,” Sauschuck said.
Businesses want people off medians
In the past year, police working with the Preble Street Resource Center, which helps the homeless, have been fact-finding. Police have asked people why they’re on medians, whether they’re homeless and if they’re being helped. The purpose is to do a better job of connecting them to agencies that can assist.
The interviews show, Sauschuck said, that the majority of median panhandlers beg for three reasons: Food, money to support substance abuse or general household needs.
Many are not from Portland, and some come from other states, Sauschuck said.
With the increase of panhandlers in the past year on Portland streets, police have more support for the ban.
The Portland Regional Chamber and many city business owners also are in favor.
“The whole community is on board,” chamber Chief Executive Officer Christopher Hall said.
The business community wants to ensure that the city is welcoming to all but believes that panhandling on medians is not an appropriate place, Hall said. As an alternative, several organizations are developing a new program called “Have a Heart, Give Smart” to drum up money for organizations that help the poor.
In addition to safety concerns, the sight of people holding signs on medians doesn’t project a good image, Hall said.
“We hear that regular citizens are not comfortable being approached,” Hall said.
Doug Fuss, who is on the Portland Downtown District board of directors and owns the restaurant Bull Feeney’s, said it’s important for the city to pass the ban.
“The idea is to get something in place so no one gets hurt, both the panhandlers themselves and drivers, who are a captive audience,” Fuss said.
“When Portland failed to pass an ordinance last July, word spread that it’s OK here. They exploit it,” Fuss said. Giving to them is “enabling” their behavior, he added; they wouldn’t be there if no one gave them money.
Marissa Perry also favors the ban. As the store team leader at Whole Foods, she sees panhandlers daily from her upper-level office window.
“They’re organized,” she said. “There’s one guy who’s the ringleader. We all know.” The group works together, Perry said, propping up drunk panhandlers, stopping by and collecting money, dropping off or picking up a dog.
Some Whole Food customers have complained about panhandlers.
“We tell them, ‘There’s nothing we can do. They’re on public property,'” Perry said.
Occasionally, panhandling has crept into the Whole Foods parking lot.
“We go out and ask them to leave,” Perry said.
She said panhandling has heated up in the past year.
“For a while, they’d come in here in the winter, buy a six-pack and go through the line. They’re not drunk yet. Then they go out and start the routine.”
Some stumble from the medians into traffic, she said.
“We’ve seen them have confrontations, physical fights” with each other.
Easier to beg than to work?
Fuss said some would rather ask for money than work. Plenty of jobs are available, he said, including at his restaurant.
The Portland job market is getting better, CareerCenter consultant Marty Perlmutter said. In June 2012 there were 650 available jobs; this June there were 1,429, he said. Workers most in demand were office support, production and sales.
Whole Foods is hiring. Most McDonald’s restaurants are hiring. But those jobs come with high expectations.
“They want people who get along with co-workers, workers with a smile and [who] look happy to be there,” Perlmutter said. “If your life isn’t together, it may be difficult to get into that interview mode.”
A national expert on poverty and the homeless, who said banning median panhandling is not the way to go, said it’s easy to cast panhandlers as lazy.
But poverty is more complicated, he said.
“It’s too easy to blame people, rather than the economic and social changes of the last three decades,” said David Wagner, professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine.
Wagner is the author of several books on the subject.
About 25 percent of homeless people do work, Wagner said, “but many do not look good, smell good. When the employer finds out they are homeless, they often fire them.”
Unlike the factory jobs now long gone, today’s service industry wants “good-looking young women and men” to help customers.
During the recession, the number of poor and homeless people mushroomed. Portland has the second-highest number of homeless in New England, Wagner said.
“We’re sheltering more than 550,” and many more don’t go to shelters, he said. The numbers are higher than cities such as Providence and Hartford.
Wagner is opposed to the median ban.
“Frankly, the city of Portland has not done that much to aid the homeless,” he said.
Part of the problem is unaffordable housing and wages and salaries that have not kept up.
If the city passes the ban, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine may challenge the law.
“We’re going to very seriously consider bringing it to court,” said Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “We’re concerned. I believe it would violate the First Amendment. Traditionally, the courts have been very protective of the rights of people to be in streets, sidewalks, parks and public squares.”
If the city wants to restrict the right to free expression, “it needs to do so in a carefully crafted manner,” Heiden said, explaining that the proposed ordinance may be too broad to survive a challenge.
The courts may allow regulation of median-standing in certain places and times, Heiden said. But the proposed ordinance would apply to all median strips all over the city at all times.
“It’s too broad,” he said.