Local law enforcement say there was an increase in the number of panhandlers in the city this summer.
UTICA – For hours at a time, they stand on busy intersections clutching hand-made signs.
Their pleas are familiar: On hard times. Unemployed. Every bit helps.
The city saw an increase in the number of panhandlers over the summer, prompting the O-D to reach out to some in an effort to learn more about their lives. While none agreed to go on the record, the reasons they gave for their presence on city streets were similar: loss of or inability to regain employment, family illness and unexpected life changes.
Some said they were homeless; others simply trying to make ends meet.
Local law enforcement officials say the uptick in panhandlers seen over the summer has since evened out; but it's a issue that never goes away entirely. Asked how the presence of panhandlers could affect the city's revitalization and economic development efforts, Mayor Robert Palmieri said the most important thing is making sure those individuals get the assistance they require.
“Economic development is truly important to our city and we’ve conveniently turned it up substantially, but what I think you’d find with the Utica Police Department is there’s compassion and help (offered) to these individuals on hard times, first and foremost.”
He also emphasized the need to ensure that panhandlers do not put themselves or the public in harm's way through their activities.
Police Chief Mark Williams said there is no law against panhandling — a New York state law prohibiting begging was found unconstitutional in 1993 — so the department’s focus is on making sure they don’t interfere with traffic or commit any crimes.
“When we get a call for panhandling we’re not trying to necessarily shoo them away, what we’re trying to see is what’s the best kind of services to offer to that individual,” Williams said.
If a panhandler has a sign purporting that they are a veteran, for example, members of the Central New York Veteran’s Outreach Center attempt to establish contact with them and see if they’re eligible for services, according to Program Director Jennifer Martin. She said the organization annually helps more than 1,500 veterans acquire housing, home furnishings, clothing or food.
“A lot of our vets are survivors, so if they need to go panhandle money to buy food or get what they need I don’t think they will think twice about it,” she said. “A lot of people will go around the city and collect bottles. Any way they can survive, they’ll do it. We tend to be a last-stop shop for people that have been to the bottom. ... So usually coming here they’re in the very worst stage of their life and they know they have to ask for help. I can see panhandling happening very often for them because for them it’s a way of surviving.”
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