William Higgins of Portland packed a cardboard sign that read “panhandling is not a crime, brother can you spare a dime,” before he left his house last Monday. But it wasn’t for begging on the streets. In fact, Higgins never panhandled in his life before. Instead, he brought it with him to a meeting inside the conference room of the Portland Downtown District, a nonprofit trade group of local merchants.
The meeting was the first in a series to be held by a newly formed ad-hoc committee in an effort to take another shot at ameliorating a growing concern in the city: aggressive panhandlers on the streets.
Higgins wasn’t just there to hold up a sign in quiet protest with a nervous smile crinkling across his face. He was there out of curiosity. How would the group of condo, business and restaurant owners address the issue? What language would they use? He was also there to represent the interests of Homeless Voices For Justice, a community outreach arm of the Preble Street Resource Center. Higgins brought along his friend and fellow advocate for the homeless, Jim Devine.
Meanwhile, a handful of their supporters were outside the Portland Downtown office with signs that read “panhandlers are people too.”
Ken Cianchette opened the meeting by reiterating the committee's goals. He said their jobs are not to tackle the issue of homelessness or panhandling specifically, but rather “the challenges that Portland Downtown has faced as far as the perception of unsafeness, for those that live, work, and visit the downtown area.” He’s observed this perception after reviewing a spreadsheet that contains “a lot of data” featuring TripAdvisor reviews, hotel testimonials, and surveys conducted by the PDD.
Cianchette was adamant about conveying that the committee does not, and will not, have a political opinion about the activity of panhandling. He also made sure to note that this “hot button issue” would likely draw a variety of differing opinions, but that nobody’s opinion on the committee or in future public forums would represent the opinion of Portland Downtown District.
He was probably thinking of the thousands of calls, emails, and Facebook posts directed at the Portland Downtown District after the Portland Press Herald first broke the story on the committee’s intentions. As you might have guessed, many locals were outraged and took the news with the assumption that the committee only views the homeless as a problem to their bottom line that must be “dealt with.” Presumably because of the backlash, Cianchette was strict during the first meeting: no personal opinions today.
“We need to be careful that we proceed in an organized fashion on how we talk about this issue,” said Cianchette. “We’ll respect all opinions. But we want to make sure we have the right, tight-knit group of downtown stakeholders on board.”
At this point, Jim Devine, one of only two advocates for the homeless community in the room, raised his hand and asked, “how narrow is your definition of downtown stakeholders?”
Cianchette explained that anybody who lives, or owns a business or property in the Downtown District could be considered to sit on the committee. So technically, Devine, a recovering alcoholic who was once homeless in Portland on four separate occasions but now rents an apartment on the peninsula, would be eligible for the committee. Upon confirming this, Devine snagged a paper and wrote down his necessary contact information for consideration; although he would tell me later that it felt strange to apply to be on the committee, but felt it necessary to work on behalf of the homeless “from the inside.”
Higgins, who was still holding up his cardboard sign, raised his hand for his own question before the meeting truly got underway. “Didn’t the last go around with the courts satisfy this issue, that people have the right to panhandle….didn’t the city learn its lesson with that last lawsuit?”
He was referring to the controversial law in 2013 that proposed that loitering and panhandling on medians be banned, citing safety concerns, but was ultimately deemed an infringement on free speech by the ACLU of Maine and the state courts.
Cianchette responded by repeating that the committee was not going to try and offer solutions to homelessness itself (let alone its root causes of substance abuse and mental health disorders), but rather the “feeling that people get what they walk around downtown.”
Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney and condo owner chimed in and said that Wiggin’s question was based on the assumption that the solution the committee hopes to arrive at will require some legal procedure, which might not be the case. She also asked Wiggins to remove his cardboard sign, because nobody else in the room was “expressing their opinion.”
These terse, tense, yet fairly cordial exchanges between the two homeless community advocates, and the people tasked with putting together an official recommendation for the future of their constituents illuminated two completely different perspectives. On one side sat a group of stakeholders determined to make Portland more marketable by addressing the “perception of unsafeness,” and on the other, homeless advocates stuck in the fight for basic, constitutional rights.
“Dealing with perception is very different from solving a problem because it’s so subjective” said Devine. “To be honest, I have witnessed aggressive panhandling, people that won’t take no for answer. That would make anyone feel unsafe. But other people might feel unsafe just walking past a person with a sign sitting there minding their own business.”
The question remains: whose perceptions will matter more in minds of these downtown stakeholders?
Several key points were established during the hour-long meeting. The group decided they would meet weekly and aim for presenting the city with a plan of action no later than July 6th. In the coming months, the committee plans on reading a wealth of literature, both fact-based and opinion based, around the issue. They plan on researching what other cities — like Orlando, Burlington and New York City — have done to curb panhandling, as well as hear ideas from local organizations like: Preble Street, Milestone, the Portland Police Department, the Better Business Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, among others that are yet to be determined.
Public forums are also planned to remain transparent and gather more opinions on the matter.
“This issue is very nuanced and complicated because civil liberties are involved,” said Doug Fuss, the owner of Bull Feeney’s and potential member of the committee.
I caught up with Devine and Higgins after the meeting to see how they felt about the group’s initial goals and the careful language everybody was using during the meeting. They both agreed that city organizations should focus their efforts on raising money for services that address the root cause of homelessness and panhandling: recovery centers, sober houses and mental health clinics.
"Panhandling is not a crime," said William Higgins, a Portland resident, Navy Veteran and member of the Homeless Voices For Justice.
“I’d like to see the business district set up some kind of mentoring system, where they can help people become more employer-friendly, and get them access to the help they need,” said Devine. “Vital services have been drying up.”
Portland Downtown District did recently raise some money to help those homeless and/or in recovery; last year they raised $8,500 dollars for the Preble Street Resource Center, and in addition they annually donate $5,000 to the Milestone Foundation, the city’s only shelter for active drug users.
Devine and Higgins don’t have high hopes that the committee’s research and future proposed “solutions” will actually help the homeless.
“They don’t like panhandlers because they’re bad for business, it’s as simple as that,” said Devine. “Their motivation is appearances. They’re not bad people, but they’re business people.”
“Their whole notion of panhandlers being unsafe and threatening is bullshit,” said Higgins. “There are things that the city just doesn’t do for people; that’s why they panhandle.”