On Tuesday Mayor Donnalee Lozeau vetoed a bill that would have banned roadside soliciting in Nashua. This followed the close vote last week by the Board of Alderman that passed the ordinance 8-7 in an attempt to make it illegal for a pedestrian to “exchange an item” with a motorist in a roadway. I’ve been following this issue closely because panhandling is the biggest change I noticed in Nashua when I moved back this summer. Not just the sheer number of panhandlers, but how widespread it seems in the city.
I still remember the very first homeless person I ever saw. I was very young, visiting Boston, and there was a man curled up in an entry way to a building with cuts across his face and arm and a cardboard sign laying over him. As shocked as I was to see someone suffering so much, I remember being just as surprised that everybody just walked by.
When I lived in NY and LA I learned that you have to just walk by, despite seeing people in truly desperate situations everyday. I’ve stepped on subway cars that homeless people had just used as bathrooms, I’ve seen a drug addict dead on a subway platform as paramedics tried to revive her, I’ve been approached by junkies begging for money while I ate in a park. It never gets less heartbreaking, and it never gets easier to just walk by.
But here’s on thing I’ve learned. There is a difference between homeless people and panhandlers. And giving money to a person who approaches you in your car is not the best way to help anyone. I’m talking about one group you may have seen around Nashua in particular.
Over the summer a group of people all over Amherst St. wearing vest and “badges” and purporting to be from a group raising money for homeless people, aggressively approached cars on the jug handles and busy intersections. If there’s one thing I know from watching countless hours of Law and Order SVU, JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS A BADGE DOESN’T MEAN IT’S REAL OR GIVES THEM ANY KIND OF AUTHORITY. I couldn’t believe the audacity of these people as they approached cars flashing their “badges” and asking for money. More than that, I couldn’t believe how many people actually fell for it. That money does not go to any kind of homeless organization. It goes into their pocket. These people prey off the naiveté of people (betcha anything they are coming to Nashua from another area specifically to target people not used to panhandlers.) And I believe an ordinance banning panhandlers would weed out people and groups just like this.
It’s not safe for people to be walking on the highway or busy streets, and it’s not safe for motorists to roll down their windows for strangers to reach inside.
Manchester and Concord have both cracked down on panhandling in recent years. Concord has a similar ordinance to the one the Mayor just vetoed that bans drivers from handing any items to pedestrians. After initially being deemed to strict, the city worked with the NH Civil Liberties Union to make sure the ordinance didn’t violate free speech. Just to be clear, here are some things the Concord ordinance doesn’t do:
- Holding signs is still protected free speech, so the ban doesn’t stop someone from holding a sign asking for money
- It cites an exception for motorists exchanging information after an accident
- It doesn’t apply to parked cars on private property
The real issue isn’t panhandling of course, but poverty, homelessness, rising rents and the increasing heroin problem in NH. And I understand the fear that an ordinance like this could further marginalize an already vulnerable group of people. But the way to help them is not to hand out money from your car. In fact, you may be just enabling drug addicts. There are however, many groups that aim to serve this population, and donating your time or money to help them reach and connect to people in dire situations can help improve lives and strengthen the community.
Do you think the Board of Alderman should vote to override the Mayor’s veto next week? Is an ordinance to ban panhandling too tough?