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Lexington passed a law last year aimed at curbing panhandling. Has it worked?

A panhandler tells how the jobs van is helping him get off the street

Panhandler Errol Gill tells how Lexington's Jobs Van and New Life Day Center are helping him earn money to get off the street.
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Panhandler Errol Gill tells how Lexington's Jobs Van and New Life Day Center are helping him earn money to get off the street.

A year after the city passed an ordinance prohibiting beggars from lingering on traffic medians and approaching cars stopped in traffic, Lexington police have issued 182 citations.

They’ve charged many repeat offenders. One person was arrested 14 times for violating the ordinance. Another was cited 10 times.

The intersection where Lexington Police wrote the most citations was South Limestone and Maxwell Street, which has long been a popular spot for panhandlers. Twenty citations were issued there between Aug. 1, 2017 and July 31. Seventeen citations were written at Boardwalk and New Circle Road.

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Those numbers were released Tuesday during a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council Planning and Public Safety Committee meeting. The council passed the pedestrian and public safety ordinance in June after the state Supreme Court struck down the city’s ordinance prohibiting panhandling in February 2017. The decision said asking people for money is a form of free speech and is protected under the First Amendment.

The city saw a surge in panhandling in the weeks following the state Supreme Court ruling.

Lexington Assistant Police Chief Dwayne Holman said some judges have dismissed citations given under the new law, which limits where people can panhandle.

“We have not experienced a tremendous amount of success in court,” Holman said.

Holman said he does not know how many citations have been dismissed.

Lexington Police did not release the number of complaints or calls about panhandling it has received from Aug. 1, 2017 to July 31.

In addition to enacting the pedestrian and safety ordinance, the city also started a jobs program that picks up panhandlers and gives them a job for a day. The city also posted signs at 46 intersections on major city streets urging people not to give to panhandlers. Instead, the signs ask people to give to Lexgive.com, which has raised $20,000 to pay wages for the jobs van.

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The city of Lexington has placed signs at 46 intersections encouraging people to give to Lexgive.com and not to panhandlers. Amy Wallot LFUCG

Vice Mayor Steve Kay said there are some intersections where panhandling continues unabated. Kay said he has received complaints about why the city can’t do more.

The pedestrian and traffic safety ordinance does not ban panhandling. It prohibits where pedestrians can stand. Lexington Police can not arrest someone who is panhandling if they are not violating the ordinance, Holman said.

“It’s a community problem, not just a police problem,” Holman said. “I think the van has been successful ... and education is helpful. If they were not receiving donations, my opinion is they wouldn’t be there.”

Councilman Richard Moloney said he thinks the panhandlers are getting more aggressive. “I feel like it’s really picked back up,” Moloney said.

Moloney said he wondered if the city should explore requiring permits to panhandle. Other cities have had success with that tactic, he said.

City lawyer Keith Horn, though, said many panhandling permit programs have been ruled unconstitutional.

“This is a First Amendment issue,” Horn said. “The courts have also looked at striking down laws that make poverty a crime.”

Horn said the city is preparing to post new signs that encourage people to report aggressive panhandling.

Councilwoman Amanda Bledsoe said she is concerned the new law is not deterring panhandling.

“It’s not effective enough for some,” said Holman, referring to the person who has been cited 14 times.

“This is a priority for us,” Bledsoe said. “I don’t want it to get out of hand and I don’t want it to become unenforceable.”

Polly Ruddick, director of the city’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, said she has seen a decrease in the number of individual panhandlers.

“We are not seeing the outsiders coming in,” Ruddick said.

Instead, Ruddick said they are seeing the same people panhandle every day, sometimes aggressively.

In addition to the new signs on aggressive panhandling, her staff is working with downtown businesses who have had complaints about panhandling.

The best way to deal with an aggressive panhandler? “Tell them you don’t carry cash,” Ruddick said.

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