The city of Lexington is launching a new program to pick up panhandlers and offer them work in a bid to cut down on the practice, which has been on the rise in recent months.
Taking a cue from a similar initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lexington will be sending a van – with “End Panhandling Now!” emblazoned on the side – across the city. Mayor Jim Gray says panhandlers will can hop in the vehicle, operated by New Life Day Center, and be presented with an the opportunity to earn a paycheck.
"Workers will earn $9 an hour, and this is more than the minimum wage," he says. "The city will offer jobs cleaning up the community. Private businesses needing day laborers can also participate."
City leaders are repeating calls to refrain from giving cash directly to panhandlers and instead direct them to social service organizations. Charlie Lanter, former director of the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, says the program could also sway public opinion.
"Really this is all about supply and demand," he explains. "Why do people panhandle? Because it works. They're getting money. So I think as citizens know, hey, if that guy's holding a sign that says 'Will work for food' or 'Need help, need job,' and they know that if they stand there they're going to get on this van and get that opportunity, they're going to be less likely to give. That's going to dry up some of the supply."
Mayor Gray said he will be requesting budget amendments to fund the project, while also asking citizens to donate to the effort through LexGive.com.
Panhandling has been steadily increasing since the state Supreme Court struck down the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance in February. Next month, Mayor Jim Gray plans to propose a new ordinance focused on pedestrian and motorist safety.
Meanwhile, Lexington police are continuing efforts to detect and crack down on harassment by panhandlers.
While panhandling constitutes protected speech under the First Amendment, according to the high court, many residents remain unclear on what constitutes harassment. Police Chief Mark Barnard says approaching and knocking on car windows can meet that description, but officers must observe it firsthand. To that end, Barnard says the department is making changes.
"What we have been doing for the past weekend is putting plain clothes officers out in the area where we've been receiving complaints. We actually made an arrest on Friday night of an individual that was harassing people as they were walking down. He had warrants on him, possession of narcotics," Barnard told reporters Tuesday.
But that case is not necessarily reflective of panhandlers in general and police must walk a thin line, respecting the right of panhandlers to ask for money on the streets while responding to genuine cases of harassment.
Right now, Barnard says the department is focusing on about 25-30 people they suspect have been causing most of the problems. He says anyone who encounters hostile or aggressive panhandling should call 9-1-1 and allow officers to handle the situation.