Elements, policing combine to reduce number of panhandlers in downtown

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After a noticeable influx this summer of people who are homeless or who panhandle sparked a discussion on social media, the numbers have been reduced by weather, warnings and tickets, police and the homeless said.

Over the summer, newspaper articles, City Council members and the Lincoln Police Department weighed in on ways to help reduce the aggressive and most persistent beggars.

According to a September Lincoln Journal Star story, Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong said there’s been an increase in the both panhandlers and in the number of homeless downtown.

And, he said, police issued 547 citations from January through the end of August in downtown for issues including consuming in public, panhandling, trespassing, soliciting from the right-of-way, urinating in public.

Capt. Kim Koluch, commander of the LPD center team, stated in an email that the overall number of tickets is fairly level. But while the number of tickets issued for panhandling in groups has tripled, she said the total numbers of tickets are not incidents, and one incident could account for multiple tickets.
But Koluch said it’s not all police activity driving down the number of panhandlers.

“I believe that the colder weather may be responsible for fewer panhandlers,” she said.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled panhandling was free speech protected by the First Amendment, there are four ways panhandling is illegal in Lincoln: 1) panhandling between sundown and sunup, 2) panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM, 3) aggressive panhandling, 4) panhandling in groups.
Of these, data released by the Lincoln Police Department shows a marked increase in tickets in recent years issued for aggressive panhandling and panhandling in groups.

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Two downtown pandhandlers interviewed said police were cracking down, and had the warning tickets to prove it.

However, one downtown regular, who dwells in a cubbyhole of a former pizza shop and places a cardboard sign on the sidewalk asking for help, said he was unaware of any increased enforcement.

Another person panhandling at dusk was unaware laws against panhandling at night were in place.

And according to the ACLU of Nebraska, they had not seen a noticeable increase in complaints lately.

Koluch said there has not been a shift in enforcement policy, but acknowledged the police department had begun issuing warnings to those who fail to keep sidewalks “clear of all obstructions, encumbrances and encroachments.”

Those, she said, included panhandlers who set up lawn chairs on sidewalks.

Koluch said the initial approach before ticketing is meant to give everyone fair warning.

According to Officer Katie Flood, a conviction for obstructing the sidewalk carries a fine for a minimum of $50, but not exceeding $500.

Koluch stated the department has tried to increased public education in the downtown area, which has led to an increase in public awareness and “a few more calls.”

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