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New Britain mulls the price of panhandling

Like in Tennessee (above), Meriden and Bristol have posted signs encouraging people to not give money to panhandlers and to donate to charities instead.
Mark Humphrey
Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, panhandles near a sign asking people not to give directly to panhandlers on May 10, 2022, in Cookeville, Tenn. Tennessee is about to become the first U.S. state to make it a felony to camp on local public property such as parks.

Walking miles on end and standing for hours in the same spot through the changing weather in hopes that someone will want to help is the life of many panhandlers in the city of New Britain.

Chantal, 40, who recently became homeless and is a panhandler with her boyfriend, said there are not enough resources for them in the city. Chantal, who lives outdoors, asked not to be identified by her full name out of concern for her safety.

“I live in the woods, but once outreach people find out where you stay, they send people to clear you out,” Chantal said. “So that’s a bummer because where else can we go?”

Chantal said sometimes the city provides housing, but she still has to pay the security deposit, which she does not have enough money for. She said that she and her boyfriend had received $99 tickets for panhandling on a few occasions.

“How do you expect us to have enough to even eat?” Chantal said.

Chantal said that the nearest soup kitchen is beyond walking distance and transportation is hard to find and afford.

“We’re harmless when we stand out here,” Chantal said. “This is our main way to make money to afford to eat, and paying a ticket alone would take everything we have.”

While some towns, including Wethersfield, have cracked down on panhandling, others, mindful that some courts have struck down some panhandling ordinances as overly broad and squelching free speech, are trying alternatives to discourage panhandling.

In January, Meriden posted some signs encouraging people to not give money to panhandlers and to donate to charities instead, NBC Connecticut reported. Bristol has similar signs in some locations, CT Insider reported.

Since February, the New Britain Common Council has been considering lowering the panhandling fines from $99 to $10 for the first fine, $15 for the second and $20 for anything after that. The idea, from Democratic Alderwoman Lori McAdam, has divided residents, activists and business owners as they debate the best way to serve the city’s homeless population.

McAdam said the fines were criminalizing people who experience homelessness. She said she has always been involved in the homeless community and talks to them every day.

Many panhandlers who are ticketed end up in court because they throw out the tickets, she said.

“They [the city] knows they [panhandlers] are going to throw out the tickets because they don’t have $99,” McAdam said. “They don’t even have enough money to eat.”

Chantal said she is disabled and her boyfriend was laid off from his job so they were living in a hotel and couldn’t find an affordable apartment. She said to get an apartment she had to get a background check, pay a security deposit and if it was affordable, she had to pay all the utilities.

“It’s hard especially if you have a [criminal] background,” Chantal said.

Council Majority Leader John McNamara, a Democrat, has said the fine is too high.

“Do you know any homeless people that can come up with $99?” McNamara said.

Assistant Minority Leader Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, a Democrat who ran successfully with the Republicans on the council, said she disagrees that the fines are criminalizing the homeless.

Beloin-Saavedra said the fines help protect the public and businesses in the city. She said she had a bad experience with an aggressive panhandler several years ago when she had left a late-night meeting of the Board of Education with another female member of the board.

“A rather large man approached us for money,” Beloin-Saavedra said, describing him as aggressive and intimidating. “As he spoke, he kept walking towards us having the effect of backing both of us into my car.”

She said the man was hovering over them and asking for money until a male colleague intervened.

But Council Minority Leader Robert Smedley, a Republican, said that lowering the fines will not fix the problem New Britain is facing.

“One of the goals of our administration has been to improve the downtown district,” Smedley said. “By lowering the fines, we are eliminating a tool that the police department needs to curtail this harassing and unwanted behavior from individuals who, most often, aren’t even residents of New Britain.”

Smedley said that the panhandlers will drive away customers and businesses from the city. Downtown business owners have told council members that their customers are frequently harassed by panhandlers, he said.

“We heard stories of harassment towards employees and customers alike,” Smedley said. “Panhandlers are not welcome and not wanted in New Britain.

Democratic Alderman Nathan Simpson said he would like to see the panhandling fine eliminated.

“To me, this feels like a tactic to silence people who are unhoused and criminalizing activities that are necessitated when folks don’t have a bed to sleep in,’’ he said.

Many panhandlers are sleeping on the street because there are not enough beds in a city shelter for them and that there are not enough resources for them. Simpson said there are a few nonprofit organizations that provide drop-in housing and shelters but there is not much else in the city.

“I’m not aware of any organizations who do things like transitional housing,” he said. “Or having longer-term solutions that not only get people off the streets but keep them off the streets.”

While some business owners in New Britain are opposed to reducing the panhandling fine, Eric Williams, the owner of the Taste of the 215 restaurant on Main Street, said he is sympathetic to the people who panhandle around his business.

He said he understands many panhandlers are experiencing mental health or addiction issues and are doing what they can to survive.

“They have issues,” he said. “It’s very difficult being in that position when you have the problems that they do. “

Maria Caceres and Brianne Johnson are students at Central Connecticut State University. This story is republished via CT Community News, a service of the Connecticut Student Journalism Collaborative, an organization sponsored by journalism departments at college and university campuses across the state.

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