PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda Tyer has a message for residents calling city leaders about panhandling on Pittsfield streets: While officials hear their concerns, there’s nothing they can do when it comes to stopping someone asking for money.
“We understand that people can’t understand why we’re not arresting people — ‘Why aren’t we moving people along;' and ‘This is a terrible situation,’ ” Tyer said. “We’re limited in what we can do.”
In recent months residents have searched out any outlet to come before city officials and ask them to intervene in the growing number of instances in which people approach drivers at busy Pittsfield intersections and local grocery stores asking for money.
These calls for action have popped up during City Council meetings, discussions of new housing projects and, on Thursday night, they made an appearance among the slate of topics discussed during the mayor’s special forum on homelessness and housing.
Tyer said in her remarks at the community forum, hosted and broadcast by PCTV, that a series of court cases at the state and federal level have made it clear that you can’t penalize someone for asking for cash.
Tyer called on Brad Gordon, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority and a local attorney, to further clarify the situation. Gordon said that a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision had the final word on the issue.
“Really what it says is that [panhandling] is a form of speech; it’s a form of communication, and as such it’s protected by both the U.S. Constitution and what is really the Massachusetts constitution,” Gordon said.
Prior to 2020, cities and towns across the commonwealth arrested and fined people found panhandling — often citing a state law that created a $50 fine for people who entered public roadways “for the purpose of soliciting any alms, contributions or subscriptions.”
That law carved out exemptions for people selling newspapers or for nonprofit groups who’d received a permit from local municipalities.
In December of that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that law was unconstitutional in a case over Fall River’s prosecution of several residents begging on city streets.
The court found that the law unduly targeted people panhandling under the guise of protecting public road safety — while showing no concern over the public safety impact of other groups engaging in the same activity.
“There can be little doubt that signaling to, stopping, or accosting motor vehicles for the purpose of soliciting donations on one's own behalf poses no greater threat to traffic safety than engaging in the same conduct for other non-prohibited or exempted purposes, such as gathering signatures for a petition, flagging down a taxicab, selling newspapers, or soliciting donations for a nonprofit organization,” Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in the court’s decision.
Several cities across the commonwealth are attempting to create narrower laws around public safety that would get around this ruling. In September, the Framingham City Council passed an ordinance that limits pedestrian entry into roadways generally but is seen as a response to that city’s panhandlers.
Tyer said when panhandling crosses from a verbal request for cash into an acute personal or public safety concern, cities have more room to respond.
“If they step out into traffic and create a safety hazard, if they follow you or continue to harass you, if they touch you — that’s conduct that could involve law enforcement [and] that could result in a call to the police department,” Tyer said.
The discussion of panhandling came at the end of an extensive conversation about the city’s ongoing attempts to help residents experiencing homelessness, develop additional housing opportunities and living options and describe the multitude of organizations working around housing security in the city.
Gordon said while residents might see a connection between the panhandling discussion and larger themes of the forum, he felt those connections come from a fundamental misunderstanding of people experiencing homelessness.
“The fact that we're integrating this issue into our conversation on homelessness is interesting to me, because what it tells me is that we, as a public or as a community, sometimes conflate those two issues,” Gordon said. “I see it as at best tangentially related.”
He encouraged residents who are concerned about panhandling to turn their attention and support to organizations that “will engage people that are panhandling.”
“This is the simple reality, if you have an issue with people panhandling you can look the other way,” Gordon added.