How Fall River Helped Decide Massachusetts’ Panhandling Debate
There was a time not long ago when panhandling on street corners and at intersections in Massachusetts and throughout the nation drove discussions on talk radio and at city halls.
The outrage and the legions of beggars have diminished somewhat since the very mention of the issue raised emotions for and against the panhandlers.
About midway through the last decade, panhandling seemed to have become a lucrative pastime for some who'd spend hours soliciting charitable contributions from drivers, some of whom felt intimidated by the beggars.
A regular cast of characters would appear daily at the Coggeshall Street entrance to the retail area near the New Bedford Market Basket.
The so-called "octopus" intersection in downtown New Bedford, the foot of Union Street, and the junction of Route 140 and Route 6 were among the more popular spots for panhandlers.
At times there was competition among panhandlers for some of the more profitable intersections, but that seems to have subsided now.
Hearing the outcry from angry citizens, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell placed so-called "spiked cobblestones" at some of the busier locations – and took political heat for it.
According to MassLive.com, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled in December 2020 that a state statute banning panhandling is unconstitutional. This followed a number of arrests by Fall River Police of people who violated the city's panhandling ordinance.
The SJC said, in essence, that homeless people can ask for donations on public roads just like anyone else. The court said the law infringed upon individual First Amendment rights.
The court said asking a motorist for cash at an intersection is "no greater threat to traffic safety than engaging in the same conduct for other non-prohibited or exempted purposes, such as gathering signatures for a petition, flagging down a taxicab, selling newspapers or soliciting donations for a non-profit organization."
Police departments and social service organizations have stepped up efforts to direct panhandlers to available programs, and motorists have reduced the amount they give to panhandlers.
As a result, there appears to be less activity on street corners and intersections and fewer complaints from taxpayers.