LEWISTON, Maine — Police have seen a few instances of individuals panhandling near the Auburn Walmart and in front of the Lewiston post office downtown.
“I wouldn’t say we don’t have panhandling here. We do get complaints,” Lewiston Chief Michael Bussiere said, mentioning the elderly being targeted at the post office. “But Portland has a way bigger problem.”
Despite that, Lewiston is considering an ordinance that would prevent aggressive panhandling or panhandling on medians, Bussiere said. The request came from City Council President Mark Cayer, who saw elderly people approached for money by a large man who was “in your face.”
The council is expected to talk about a panhandling ordinance this fall after getting a recommendation from Lewiston police, Cayer said.
Under the U.S. Constitution, “there’s nothing that prevents panhandling here or anywhere else,” Bussiere said. “It’s widely considered protected by the First Amendment. People can ask people for money.”
That behavior crosses the line, he said, when there’s panhandling from a median, which brings up public safety concerns, and when panhandlers continue to ask for money after a person has said no or ignored the request.
“That’s where we get into aggressive panhandling,” Bussiere said.
In Auburn, panhandling is not allowed on public property, Deputy Chief Jason Moen said.
A city ordinance makes it unlawful to solicit on public streets and sidewalks, Moen said. Begging for money is included in Auburn’s definition of soliciting.
“We used to get quite a few calls by Walmart,” Moen said. “Now we send them on their way. Because of the city ordinance, we ask them to leave.”
They’ve been cooperative, he said.
The city ordinance says no one can solicit on a public street, sidewalk or other public place without a license.
Lewiston’s Bussiere said no one would panhandle if people didn’t give them money. If someone is struggling with what to do when confronted by someone asking for money, Bussiere suggested donating to reputable organizations that help the poor.
“When you give out cash to individuals, you don’t know how that money’s being spent,” Bussiere said. “But you know these nonprofits have a long-standing track record of providing resources to folks who need help.”