Worcester, Mass. panhandling ordinances facing some backlash

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October 10, 2013, 6:10 pm
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(NECN: Mike Cronin) - The median on Highland Avenue in Worcester, Mass. is empty Thursday. It was a different scene about a year ago, when panhandlers solicited money.

Worcester Police Department Chief Gary Gemme said, “We're not trying to eliminate panhandling in the city of Worcester. That's not our responsibility. Our responsibility is for public safety.”

Back in January, the city passed two panhandling ordinances, limiting people from begging in medians and stepping into traffic. Gemme says they've used a lot of discretion enforcing the laws. Since the ordinances went into effect, Gemme says 43 incidents were called in, resulting in 13 arrests.

He said, “Our responsibility is to just identify those individuals that are involved in aggressive panhandling and then those that are compliant with the ordinance that they have a right to collect money.”

The city has said the laws protect public safety. But the ACLU disagrees. In May they filed a lawsuit to block the laws. An attorney representing the plaintiffs says Worcester has no factual evidence to support their claims.

Kevin Martin of Goodwin Procter said, “The city really didn't have any evidence that people were getting hurt panhandling or raising funds for other causes along streets or on medians.”

Scott Shaeffer-Duffy, who has helped the city’s homeless for years, said, “No one's obligated to give to somebody that's begging but it's up to those that want to give them.”

He disagrees with the panhandling ordinance and says there are already laws on the books to prevent people from walking into traffic.

He said, “These laws was never about public safety. These were about hiding the fact that there are desperate people in the city of Worcester.”

Meanwhile, Gemme says panhandling still exists in the city, but there are not as many people in medians and walking in traffic. He says that alone ensures public safety.

Tags: massachusetts, law, homeless, Worcester, panhandle, ordinance
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