Spare change? Bennington weighs ban on panhandlers
BENNINGTON -- Lottery tickets, cigarettes, and a muzzleloader are some items the town's "panhandlers" are buying with money given to them, and so the town will consider an ordinance to curb the behavior.
"We've received complaints about panhandlers on the streets of Bennington from the Chamber of Commerce and the Better Bennington Corporation, because they have received complaints from tourists," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.
He has drafted an amendment to the town's existing ordinance on the use of public ways and public nuisances. The matter has been placed on the Select Board's agenda for Monday's meeting beginning at 6 p.m. at the Bennington Fire Facility on River Street. If the board approves it, it must go through a series of public hearings before it becomes law.
"There are certain individuals downtown who panhandle, specifically targeting tourists," said John Shannahan, executive director of the BBC, a non-profit that promotes downtown businesses.
Shannahan said he has witnessed how panhandlers operate and recently got into a verbal confrontation with a person who was doing it. He said the person had asked a tourist for money, and the tourist asked Shannahan where the money would go.
"I know exactly where it's going, cigarettes and lottery tickets," Shannahan said, adding that he has received complaints from local gas stations about people panhandling in front of their stores and using what they receive to purchase lottery tickets.
"Nobody has to panhandle in Bennington," he said. "We have emergency services."
The problem panhandlers create is a quality of life issue, he said, although some people have felt threatened and unsafe. "It puts our worst face forward that it's happening, and that we're allowing it to happen."
Police have always been able to ask panhandlers to move along, and they do, but their orders have nothing behind them. Shannahan said an ordinance will allow a civil ticket to be written.
"I think it's something that's needed," said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. "Bennington is a community where people want to walk down the street and not be asked for money."
He said the problem extends beyond the downtown, with panhandlers standing around with signs in the shopping plazas along Northside Drive and Kocher Drive. Doucette said the people doing this are not buying things they need, and said in one case he was contacted when a person purchased a muzzleloader, and the accessories needed to make it fire, using money they solicited. The person was convinced to return the weapon and no further investigation was needed, said Doucette.
Doucette said some panhandlers are also being deceptive about their level of need. He said when police are called to a situation, they direct the people to places where they can have their needs, if any, met.
The draft amendment, among other things, prohibits soliciting within 15 feet of building entrances, vendors, public information booths, dark areas, handicapped parking spaces, or automated teller machines. People are also forbidden from soliciting for non-existent needs or when they have no intention of using the money to meet their stated needs.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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