It’s human nature to want to help others, and the residents of St. Louis Park have a long tradition of compassion and generosity. So when I see someone giving money to panhandlers in St. Louis Park, I understand the desire to help those who appear to be homeless and struggling. Unfortunately, things are not always what they appear to be, and that desire to help may have unintended consequences.
As a police department, we have been trying to educate our community about the laws that may apply to panhandling, and we are also trying to encourage you to help those who are homeless and needy by giving to agencies and non-profits who exist to help them.
The courts have ruled that panhandlers have First Amendment protection to stand passively and display their signs. They may not behave aggressively or interfere with traffic flow. Our police officers have taken the time to meet and talk with some of the “regulars” who panhandle in our community. Our officers report the panhandlers are typically very aware of what they can and cannot do, and most express limited interest in our attempts to direct them to resources related to their basic needs and necessities. Unfortunately, while we have been trying to discourage direct giving of cash to panhandlers and encourage panhandlers to utilize willing non-profits for help and support, it appears the number of panhandlers at some of our busier intersections is actually increasing.
We understand that there is little we can do about non-aggressive panhandling as a police department. We also understand this issue exists throughout the metro area, and that those who give to panhandlers in our community may or may not be tied to our community by residence or job. Still, negative effects result from panhandling and our residents and business owners continue to voice concerns about this issue. Some residents or visitors to our community may feel unsafe or intimidated by the panhandlers. Businesses may suffer if panhandlers are present near their businesses regularly because people may choose to avoid these areas.
I have been struck recently by the sheer number of panhandlers present in the area along Highway 7 adjacent to Knollwood Mall. It sometimes appears that every available corner and median related to the Texas Avenue and Aquila Avenue intersections is occupied by panhandlers. The same can be said for Excelsior Boulevard and Highway 100. People driving through or visiting our community are left with negative images of St. Louis Park. A resident recently described the Excelsior Boulevard and Highway 100 area as an “eyesore” in characterizing the image relatives received while visiting him from out of town.
We need your help. St. Louis Park and the greater metro area have a variety of services and non-profit partners in place to help those who are in need. Donating to these organizations helps you give smart. This type of giving offers a much better and more certain return on investment than reaching out the window and giving cash to a panhandler. We will continue to direct those who are in need to services and non-profit partners who exist to help them. By supporting STEP and similar food shelf organizations you can help ensure the availability of food to those in need. By supporting St. Stephens of Minneapolis and similar organizations, you can support teams of outreach workers who visit with panhandlers on our streets and offer assistance in locating stable and affordable housing.
Several years ago our community had a discussion about the proliferation of graffiti and developed a strategy to mitigate the corrosive impacts our residents and businesses were experiencing. While we have not eliminated graffiti, we have the support of the community in implementing a strategy that has dramatically reduced the presence of graffiti and its negative impacts on our community. The discussion around what to do about panhandling is more difficult because the objective is so much larger than just getting people holding signs off of busy intersections.
There is no empirical data to suggest that the presence of panhandling has caused crime to increase in St. Louis Park. We do know anecdotally that many of our local panhandlers want only cash, and that when they leave their post they go directly to their liquor store or drug dealer. Some of them have even begun to dress in clothing that will play upon your sympathy or possibly amuse you. It is also true that of our local panhandlers several were our primary suspects in a string of home burglaries we have been investigating.
We know the growing presence of panhandlers in St. Louis Park is making many of you uncomfortable. We continue to hear from you and understand your concerns. We also know that your objective in contacting us is not to reach an “out of sight out of mind” resolution related to panhandlers in St. Louis Park. We are asking that you partner with us in a strategy which we hope will reduce the presence of panhandlers, while increasing the availability of resources for panhandlers and all those who are in need. I encourage you to visit our city’s website at www.stlouispark.org where you will find useful tips for dealing with panhandlers and resources and organizations that utilize your generosity to serve those in need. And remember, aggressive panhandling is illegal. If you feel threatened, call 911.