Anchorage police ramp up efforts to stop panhandling

Benjamin S. Brasch
Bill Roth

Police are renewing their efforts to crack down on panhandling along Anchorage roads over the next few weeks in hopes of lessening the problem before winter temperatures hit.

And this isn't the first time.

In May 2011, city leaders started to fine those who donate to panhandlers and relaunched the "Change for the Better" campaign, which was already seven years old at the time.

According to APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro, in the past year police have cited 16 people for either panhandling or donating to a panhandler from their car. Fines for donators start at $50 for a first offense, move up to $100 and then to $300 for a third violation.

"Giving a panhandler a $50 or $100 fine -- you might as well give them a million-dollar fine. It doesn't modify their behavior," police Chief Mark Mew said in 2011.

"The simple fact is this: panhandlers are growing in numbers for many reasons, not the least of which is the ease with which they can get money here in Anchorage," said Mayor Dan Sullivan. "We are a generous city, and we are filled with generous individuals."

That was in 2011.

Melinda Freemon, director of supportive housing for RurAL CAP, said an average of 12 people a month from the Lower 48 enter her organization's program to assist low-income residents.

Freemon said while those who donate to panhandlers are normally kind people, what they are doing is the worst possible thing for the panhandler.

"It's a really unhealthy practice," she said.

Freemon said most of the money donated to panhandlers goes to alcohol, not food. If people really want to help, she said, they should donate to a reputable charity that will ensure the money is used on items the person needs.

"It's not just a safety issue. It's a lifestyle issue," she said.

She said it's hard for panhandlers to stop because there are so many people doing it and they are successful. A panhandler can easily make between $50 to $100 a day, she said.

Police spokeswoman Castro said people should not encourage panhandlers to wander into traffic by giving them money, which only makes the job of police more difficult.

She said those who ask for money endanger themselves and those around them by disrupting traffic patterns.

"As we approach wintertime, and roads get more hazardous, it can . . . be a dangerous situation," she said.

Castro said while police aren't concentrating on any specific areas of town over the next few weeks, they know where the problems are. She mentioned East Anchorage and Jewel Lake.

She said panhandlers in those areas will stand in the medians to ask for money, which is illegal.

Many people confuse legal and illegal panhandling, Castro said.

If an individual is on private property and has the permission of the owner, he can ask for money as long as he doesn't disrupt traffic, which is a violation of municipal code.

According to the code, there are two levels to illegal panhandling.

Lower-level violations, which can lead to a $300 fine, include panhandling at a bus stop, in any public transportation vehicle, in a vehicle parked on a public street, in a sidewalk cafe or within 20 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank.

Higher-level violations can draw a $2,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail. Those violations include doing any of the following while panhandling: touching someone, begging from someone in line, blocking someone's path, following someone too closely, using abusive language and begging in a group of two or more.

If they can't pay their fines, panhandlers have options like civic penalties, community service and rehabilitation programs.

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