July 25. 2017 11:52PM

Manchester signs discouraging panhandling installed

New Hampshire Union Leader

A motorist passes by a sign about donating to homeless people on Elm Street at the intersection with Amoskeag Street in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Signs are being installed in more than a dozen locations across Manchester urging residents to avoid giving money to panhandlers and asking drivers to give to local charities instead.

The signs say “Your generosity could lead to a fatality,” and ask drivers to consider making a donation instead to social service agencies like New Horizons for New Hampshire, Child and Family Services, and Families in Transition, listing the addresses and phone numbers for each.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen last month approved placing the signs in locations frequented by panhandlers, following comments by Police Chief Nick Willard and Mayor Ted Gatsas that the top request they hear from Manchester residents, business owners and officials is to “do something” about panhandlers on city streets.

“What I’m hearing from people is, ‘Chief, you need to get the panhandlers off the streets, you have to arrest them or do something, what you’re doing now isn’t working,” said Willard. “I think what we need is a broader conversation. If we as a community give to social service agencies that serve the panhandler and not directly to the panhandler, I think the community will be better served.”

Signs have been installed, or are scheduled to be, at locations including the intersection of Amoskeag and Elm streets, South Willow Street at Queen City Avenue, Maple and Bridge streets, Beech and Bridge streets, Beech Street and Cilley Road, the entrance to the East Side Plaza, Queen City Avenue at Second Street, and the south entrance to the Mall of New Hampshire. Willard said about 15 signs will be installed.

“The locations chosen seem to be the most profitable for panhandlers,” said Willard. “You’ll see one group of panhandlers there in the morning, a different group in the afternoon and maybe a third set later in the day.”

Willard said the city is also talking with officials at the state Department of Transportation about placing signs at the foot of highway off-ramps, such as Exit 6 on Interstate 93, where panhandlers frequently set up shop.

The new signs echo statements made by Willard last month in a two-page letter to the community, where he both discouraged people from giving to panhandlers while recognizing that panhandlers are within their rights to ask for money.

According to Willard, 24 known panhandlers have overdosed over the last 29 months, some multiple times. Six of them died.

“Ask yourself, in the spirit of giving, when you give somebody money ... are you okay if that money is used to purchase drugs, and then they overdosed and died from it?” asked Willard.

Willard said his department will continue to address panhandling-related violations of motor vehicle laws by issuing summonses to drivers who impede the flow of traffic by slowing down or stopping to donate.

“We will continue cracking down on that activity,” said Willard. He also said that panhandlers who step onto the roadway are violating traffic laws and will be ticketed.

On downtown sidewalks, panhandlers are more likely to approach pedestrians. Willard said police can only arrest a sidewalk panhandler if he threatens people or shouts obscenities. He said he is looking at ordering sandwich-board signs to place outside restaurants, urging people not to give to panhandlers. He said he got the idea from a photo someone sent to him of a similar sign outside a restaurant in New York City.

“We aren’t the only city dealing with this,” said Willard.

Lawyers representing civil libertarians and the poor sued the city in federal court in January 2016, challenging the police department’s use of the state’s disorderly-conduct law to charge panhandlers holding signs on city sidewalks and asking motorists for money.

Lawyers for both sides argued the legal merits of the panhandling lawsuit in U.S. District Court in May. The trial is expected to start Nov. 14, and last an estimated two weeks.

“There’s a balance I’m trying to achieve,” said Willard. “Should we be ticketing these people, then when they can’t pay their fines there’s an arrest warrant, and they end up in Valley Street jail. Then you have a nonviolent individual in Valley Street jail, just for asking people for money. What I’m hoping for is a greater discussion here about what’s going on.”