Initiative Aims to Get Panhandlers off the Streets

By Anne Mostue

June 11, 2012

Harvard Square MBTA

Harvard Square, Cambridge. (ArnoldReinhold/Wikimedia)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As the weather warms up and tourists fill the streets, panhandlers appear in droves, asking for spare change at almost every busy square and intersection. The treatment they receive from pedestrians, storeowners and police varies widely, as does their income. Now there's a new effort in Cambridge to get panhandlers off the streets.
Please spare change
Justin Newton divides his time between two trendy and rather affluent areas of Greater Boston: Harvard Square and Newbury Street. He's 31, tall with shaggy red hair and a beard. He's also a panhandler. For up to 8 hours a day he sits or stands with a cardboard sign, usually scrawled with a funny message — for instance, one day in May, "Too Ugly to Sell My Body, Already Sold my Soul. Please Spare Change."
The shelter where Newton usually stays is closed until the fall, he said, so he and friends sleep on the street. You might see them in front of the Coop or in the Pit in Harvard Square. He said on a good day, after about 8 hours, he makes about $75. He spends his money on what he called homeless "gear."
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t using some of it to buy, like, pot," he said. "But well, I just bought these two foam mattress pads because my back’s been really bothering me and I needed a better surface to sleep on."
When asked if he'd tried to get a full-time job, he shrugged. "I was looking for work for 2 1/2 years before I became homeless. If I couldn’t find a job when I had a roof over my head, think of how much harder it is to get a job when you don’t have a roof over your head, when your address is a drop-in center," he said.
The scope of the problem
Newton is one of the estimated hundreds of panhandlers in Boston. There's no actual data, and the annual homeless census cannot account for panhandlers. Many of them are just passing through the city. In an informal survey in Harvard Square, those interviewed said they were homeless. On a good day they made about $80, on a bad day about $15. Several said they have caseworkers and collect Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Adminstration's benefit for people who have disabilities and limited resources. 
But even as panhandlers work solo on the streets, they're organized. In Harvard Square, they stagger themselves. John Casey, 59, said he and his friends met each morning to divvy up territory.
"We talk in the morning and then we just decide where to go," he said. "I got three other friends who are doing it. We meet at Starbucks. We have our coffee then we head out."
What the police think
Panhandling is legal. In fact, it's a First Amendment right. But panhandlers can't follow people, touch them or become verbally abusive. It's a fine line, according to Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas. 
"We have officers that are just dedicated to working with that population," he said. "And our officers are really good at talking to them, setting some boundaries with them, and oddly enough we've been doing this for 2 1/2 years, they follow these rules."
The business perspective
The real tension in Harvard Square is between panhandlers and business owners. Haas said Cambridge police have just started a "homeless ambassador program" to train business owners to interact positively with panhandlers and distribute information on local social service agencies. 
"What's been really successful is we really have struck a fabulous partnership with the business association and social service providers and we're really working closely together," said Haas.
There are efforts to empower panhandlers. For example, for 20 years they've had the option of selling a newspaper called Spare Change News. The police don't take a stance on whether the public should give money to panhandlers; the Harvard Square Business Alliance, however, encourages local residents and tourists to give instead to shelters and other homeless support organizations.

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