­City cracks down on panhandling

By HASKEL BURNS,

With the increasing amount of panhandling occurring within Hattiesburg city limits, officials are looking for some solutions to that complicated issue in the form of stricter language in an ordinance that addresses aggressive panhandling throughout the city.

Hattiesburg City Council members voted Tuesday to amend a city code that currently addresses peddlers and solicitors to add panhandling, which is defined as “any solicitation made in person, verbally or in writing, requesting an immediate donation or other thing of value.” A person will now be found guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she is found panhandling at any of the following locations: an intersection, interstate entrance or interstate exit; any bus station or train stop; in a public transportation vehicle or facility; 20 feet in any direction from an ATM or bank; within 20 feet of any occupied vehicle on the street; in public parks and buildings; and on private property, unless the panhandler has permission from the owner or occupants.

“This is a difficult, complicated issue, because there’s nothing cut and dry on how someone became homeless, or how somebody ended up in Hattiesburg,” Mayor Toby Barker said during a Monday news conference at Hattiesburg City Hall. “As a city, we first realize that the homeless situation is very complex, and any potential solution must approach this challenge through that lens.

“At the same time, we know that a municipal government’s first responsibility and obligation is providing for the safety of its residents, businesses and visitors. Over the past several weeks, we have heard from our citizens, and like them, we’ve seen the issue with our own eyes as we drive around Hattiesburg.”

The language in the amendment also lays out several measures that define aggressive panhandling, including blocking the path of the person being panhandled; following a person who walks away from the panhandler; panhandling in a group of two or more persons; or using profane or abusive language.

Any person found panhandling can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. In addition, they will be fined not less than $100 and not more than $250, imprisoned in the county jail for not more than six months, or both fined and imprisoned.

“I can’t tell people how to live out their faith and how to live out their own convictions,” Barker said. “I can tell you, however, that we never really know what’s going on with an individual who may be panhandling.

“In many cases that we have found, many of these individuals are not even homeless. I can also tell you that when you give cash to someone – not in all cases, but in many – you are perpetuating and enabling a habit, so be mindful of that when you’re out on the roadways.”

Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said although she agrees something does need to be done about the issue of panhandling, she would like other officials to be aware of the burdens that homeless people already carry.

“If we say that they have mental health issues, then my concern is in the enforcement of this ordinance, there are going to be penal consequences for them,” she said. “And if we have penal consequences for them, and we’re acknowledging that many of them have mental health issues, what are we really doing?

“I do know something needs to be done; I would just caution us about placing another burden upon individuals who already have the burden of homelessness on them. And asking for help, sometimes, is the only way these individuals are able to secure sustenance for themselves.”

The panhandling amendments to the ordinance will go into effect in early September.

Along with the panhandling amendment, Barker also announced another measure that officials hope will help connect people with needed resources, while still ensuring public safety: a new homeless resource center in the former Courtesy Ford building on West Pine Street. The building was recently purchased by the city to serve primarily as a maintenance site for Hattiesburg Police Department vehicles.

The homeless resource center is the result of a partnership with Pine Belt Mental Health Resources, which recently received a grant for the initiative.

“This resource center will allow drop-ins from those who are homeless,” Barker said. “This resource center affords individuals access to community services such as mental health treatment, as well as job training.”

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