Bill Rae knows a bit about panhandling.
He once was pretty good at it.
So when the executive director at Manna Ministries, who helps feed hundreds of needy people each night in the agency’s Bangor-based soup kitchen, passes by the panhandlers who hang out each day on Stillwater Avenue and near the Bangor Mall, he knows what answer he’s going to get when he offers them a hot meal and some help.
“They are not interested in a hot meal. They are not interested in food,” Rae said this week. “They want cash.”
Last week, he stopped to talk to a fellow with the “I’m homeless, please help” sign standing at the entrance of Walmart. Rae told the man that he would give him a ride to Manna to get some food and someone would give him a ride back.
“He tore up the brochure I handed him, told me to do something terribly obscene to my own mother and finally said, ‘Just leave us alone,’” Rae said.
Many of us have seen them. They are positioned in high-traffic areas, standing in medians, quietly and patiently holding their signs.
Last year I saw the same man nearly every day at his perch in the median at the I-95 exit ramp on Broadway.
Now there are many more and they are spread throughout the city.
Many of us are uncomfortable with them. Some of us feel guilty, some of us feel angry, some feel confused.
Bangor City Solicitor Norm Heitmann has begun researching other municipal ordinances and possible ordinance language that might curb this behavior, as some city councilors have expressed concerns and complaints and would like to try to find a legal way to get these panhandlers out of our sight.
You can take my word for it or not, but that ain’t gonna happen.
Unless the city of Bangor is legally craftier than, say, the state of Utah, the state of Michigan, the city of Phoenix, Ariz., the city of Chicago, the city of Detroit, the city of San Francisco, and the city of Seattle.
They’ve all tried it and every one of the ordinances and laws adopted have been overturned by federal courts based on the nagging First Amendment right to free speech.
At one recent Bangor meeting, Bangor police Sgt. Tom Reagan and Heitmann suggested the city might have more success pleading the safety issue.
“The concerns some councilors have expressed center on safety,” Heitmann said, providing examples of potential actions or situations arising from panhandling, such as a car getting rear-ended by another vehicle after slowing down or stopping for the driver to hand someone money.
Judges across the country seem to have seen through that argument. It doesn’t stand up in court.
The judges seem to know what the municipal leaders are really getting at, and that is exactly what Bangor City Councilor Pat Blanchette said most honestly.
“This is not an image I want to see Bangor have,” she said.
If Bangor does not already have it, what it can do is adopt an aggressive panhandler ordinance, which prevents anyone from begging within so many feet of an ATM, bus stop, or other public transit, pursuing someone after they’ve said no, touching or asking people who are waiting in line — in other words, a captive audience that can’t get away.
Aggressive panhandling ordinances have been widely adopted, are accepted by the American Civil Liberties Union and have not been successfully challenged in federal court.
The men and women who stand in the medians on Stillwater Avenue with their “Homeless. Please Help” signs, would not qualify legally as aggressive panhandlers.
Does that mean all is lost?
It does not.
This issue is a perfect example of the community of Bangor and its neighbors stepping up to take care of a problem.
It is, of course, your decision. But make it an informed one. Should your heartstrings be tugged as you are waiting for that red light to turn green, perhaps instead of handing someone a few bucks, you zip down to the Bangor Homeless Shelter, or Manna or the Hope House, and drop off your donation there.
In Seattle they have started a “Have A Heart Give Smart” campaign to encourage residents, employees and visitors to the downtown to give their donation to a shelter or food bank rather than to a panhandler, suggesting that panhandlers are less apt to use your donation for food and shelter than for drugs or alcohol.
Bill Rae is sympathetic to the addicted and the homeless. He’s been both, and today he serves both, and he’s glad to do it.
“In 1968 and ’69 I was living in San Francisco with a bunch of others and we lived in a big old house and each morning we took off and went to different areas of the city and panhandled. We would come home at night and sometimes we would have as much as $600 or $700. It was lucrative as long as the people felt sorry for us. Us? We were having the time of our lives. A lot better than working.”
The city is not going to ordinance its way out of this issue.
If the panhandlers’ corner is no longer lucrative, they will move on.