Do panhandlers have a right to be on Hamilton and Cedar Crest?

Q: Often when I drive eastbound on Hamilton Boulevard in the area of Cedar Crest Boulevard, there are people standing at the roadside collecting money. Once when I asked for information about who they were collecting for, I couldn't get a straight answer. I often wonder if these people are legit, and their blowing off my inquiry makes me smell a scam.

— Chris Casey, Upper Macungie Township

Q: I wish you would do an article on the men who stand on Hamilton Boulevard or the Bypass at Cedar Crest Boulevard with signs stating, 'homeless, will work for money'. I don't believe they are homeless, and neither would they work for money or food. Who sponsors these people, and why does the township allow them to stand there all day? They are loitering at the very least.

— Barry George, Allentown

 A: Police as well as social agencies are well aware of people who panhandle on Hamilton and Cedar Crest, where Allentown and South Whitehall converge. And, they respect their legal right to stand in public places with their signs.

Tom Walker of the Lehigh County Conference of Churches advises that homeless people at the roadside "really should be left alone" unless they request help, appear to be distressed or if their behavior puts themselves, others or property at risk.

Police should be called if you suspect a scam or become concerned about the safety of a panhandler — or the good-cause fundraiser, for that matter, according to Walker, human services director for the organization.

If you have general concerns about the welfare of a particular panhandler, call the Conference at 610-433-6421, or another human-services provider, so that those with experience can take any appropriate action.

"What this is affirming is that all people have the right to be in public spaces," he said, while at the same time, "communities have right to be in a safe environment" and have their property protected.

Allentown police in recent years have trained officers on the proper way to deal with the homeless, according to Assistant Chief Joe Hanna.

"It used to be we'd respond and kind of give them a warning," Hanna said.

Now Allentown police will work with the Conference to find long-term housing. "It works, it really works. Now at least we're part of the solution process to get these people permanent shelter. I'm very proud of the fact that we are a part of it," he said.

Generally, though, people have a right to be on public property. And, as far as I can tell, panhandling at the roadside does not necessarily constitute loitering, in part because the person arguably has a purpose: collecting money.

It's true that soliciting of any kind while "on the roadway" violates state law. But panhandlers generally ply their trade from the shoulder, which by definition is not part of the roadway. They might enter the roadway to collect offerings, but then, so do legitimate solicitors for charities such as "canners" for Penn State's admirable THON program.

Panhandling is prohibited or controlled in many municipalities, but the laws try to respect the right to simply be present in public spaces. Allentown's ordinance specifies that panhandling "does not include passively standing or sitting with a sign or other indication that one is seeking donations," which seems to describe the gentleman I encountered on Hamilton Boulevard at Cedar Crest Boulevard recently.

If police see panhandlers that meet the definition, they'll normally take action, according to Hanna and South Whitehall Police Sgt. Mike Sorrentino. If Allentown's ordinance is being violated, "We will ask [the panhandler] to cease and desist," and usually compliance is immediate, Hanna said. If officers suspect the person might be homeless or otherwise need help, they'll ask the pertinent questions and provide help if possible.

Sorrentino said township officers generally move panhandlers along if they pose a safety threat, but they also inform them of available shelters, transporting them when possible. Often, he added, those offers of help are refused. After 25 years in human services, that did not surprise Walker. "They have any number of reasons to say 'no,'" he said.

My encounter with the man in the photo underscores what I've been told by Walker and police on the situation.

He clearly was not comfortable with my presence — a reaction Walker cited as common. Before I approached, as I took photographs of him simply standing with his sign, he cast his eyes to the ground, and continued to avoid eye contact throughout our discussion. I said hello, identified myself and asked his name. He said he'd rather not give it. What was he doing there? He wants a job. What kind of work can he do? "I just want a job." Does he drink too much? "Never touch the stuff." Drugs? He's too old for any of that. He only wanted me to go away.

While there, a woman in a mini-van pulled over and handed him a five-dollar bill. "Thank you so much, madam," he said. Feeling badly, I was shamed into giving him a five of my own. "Thank you," he said, but without warming to my presence in the least.

I'd heard it's a bad idea to give panhandlers money — if they do have addiction problems, they'll use it to buy more substance, perpetuating the problem — but I couldn't help it. Walker later confirmed that "My agency does not condone giving money," recommending instead providing food or other requested material needs. So I drove the wrong way on that particular street.

One thing for sure: This man posed no threat to anyone or anything. He was short, thin and pale. Though missing some teeth, he did not appear to be dirty or particularly disheveled. He said he had no family and nowhere to live, but refused to go to any shelter because "they steal your money and rob you" at shelters.

So, if you see someone at roadside and think they might need help, the shortcut recommendation is to call the Conference or another human-services provider. If you suspect any kind of criminal scam at work, call police on a non-emergency line.

If you simply don't like the idea of someone being there with a sign, do something to help. The need for volunteers and/or monetary contributions for agencies that help the homeless is vast.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to hartzell@mcall.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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