Lexington police are stepping up patrols downtown and asking people not to give to panhandlers as complaints grow about the number of people begging on streets and at intersections.
In February, the state Supreme Court struck down a 2007 Lexington ordinance that prohibits panhandling on public streets or intersections, saying it violated the First Amendment. Since the ordinance was tossed, the number of people asking for money on Lexington streets and complaints about panhandling have skyrocketed, Lexington police and council members say.
Urban County Councilman Kevin Stinnett said during a Tuesday council work session that a replacement ordinance focusing on pedestrian safety will be discussed at a council committee meeting on May 2. It was originally slated to be discussed in June, but it has been fast-tracked to the May 2 General Government and Social Services Committee meeting.
In the meantime, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said he has formed a task force to look at the issue of panhandling. Lexington police have increased the number of police bike units downtown. The city has also distributed thousands of fliers that encourage people not to give to panhandlers but instead to direct panhandlers to social service agencies that provide food, clothing, housing and employment opportunities.
Gray said a more targeted marketing campaign encouraging people not to give to panhandlers is being discussed.
“We are all doing all we can,” Gray said, noting he had three meetings on panhandling in the past week. “We are tackling this problem.”
But Gray cautioned there was no overnight solution.
Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard said although asking for money on public streets is now legal, aggressive and hostile begging can be harassment.
“We want people to call us,” Barnard said. “We will go out and talk to the person.”
Over Easter weekend, Barnard said he received more than 25 pictures of people panhandling.
Panhandling was once most common downtown but now people holding signs asking for help can be seen at nearly every major intersection and in suburban strip malls, he said.
“Most of these people are much younger and they aren’t homeless,” Barnard said. “Lexington is known as a very generous community.”
Councilman Fred Brown said his wife was recently approached by a panhandler in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Councilman Richard Moloney said he recently attended an event downtown at night. “For the first time, I didn’t feel safe walking downtown,” Moloney said. He said he felt so uncomfortable that he crossed to the other side of Main Street, where Lexington’s police station is located.
Many council members said Tuesday they have been inundated with complaints and concerns about panhandlers. Some panhandlers are standing at entrance and exit ramps off New Circle Road. Others have been reported in the median on Richmond Road or Tates Creek Road.
“I am worried that someone will get hurt or killed,” Barnard said.
A pedestrian was killed on Sunday night on Nicholasville Road.
Danny Alan Newport, 53, died at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital after he was struck by a pickup truck, according to the coroner’s office. Newport was homeless and had been staying at the Hope Center, Fayette County coroner’s office has said.
Newport was struck by a Chevy Silverado pickup truck that was traveling inbound on Nicholasville Road from Zandale Drive about 8:30 p.m., according to police. The driver flagged down police, who found Newport on the sidewalk. The report does not say that Newport was panhandling.
Lexington has been working to rewrite its panhandling ordinance since the February state Supreme Court decision. Officials have examined dozens and dozens of other ordinances across the country, Barnhard said. Lexington is not the only city struggling with this issue. Ordinances prohibiting panhandling have been struck down across the country, he said.
“This is a problem nationwide,” Barnard said.