Pittsfield eyes safety regulations for panhandling, sign-carrying

ServiceNet, which owns and operates Berkshire County's largest homeless shelter, Barton's Crossing in Pittsfield, remains focused on moving its services outside the aging North Street building near Pontoosuc Lake.

PITTSFIELD — Panhandlers and sign-holders standing on the city's medians could distract drivers, Ward 7 Councilor Tony Maffuccio said Tuesday.

Maffuccio petitioned the city to explore an ordinance on the issue, during the City Council meeting Tuesday. Councilors voted to refer that petition to the city's attorney, Stephen Pagnotta.

Other communities around the country have tried to address panhandling, only to have those efforts shot down in the courts, noted Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon. To her point, councilors decided that it would be best for Pagnotta to draft a document that could pass legal muster.

Pagnotta said the courts have upheld the First Amendment rights of panhandlers and sign carriers, but some communities successfully have passed legislation regulating where people can safely stand to convey their messages.

"It's a safety concern," Maffuccio said, pointing to concerns for the people standing close to the road and the drivers they might be distracting.

Maffuccio and other councilors noted having heard from some merchants and residents about panhandling.

Councilor at Large Pete White said it's important that the possible regulations be focused on safety, and not on panhandlers.

"We can't be targeting individuals," he said.

Also during the meeting, Maffuccio petitioned the city to do more to address homelessness, which multiple people spoke to in public comment. His petition was referred to the council's Public Health and Safety Committee, to Pagnotta and to Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer.

ServiceNet, which owns and operates the county's largest homeless shelter, Barton's Crossing, remains focused on moving its services outside the aging North Street building near Pontoosuc Lake.

Ed Carmel, chairman of the city's Homeless Commission, urged councilors to act.

"I would expect some more due diligence from councilors to bring more solutions, to help out with the homeless and maybe find a way to house the homeless," Carmel said. "We need to have some more entities collaborate with each other."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.