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story.lead_photo.caption Larry Laubach, 68, holds a hat out to ask for change from passing motorists near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and South Oak Road in Fayetteville on Tuesday. Laubach said most motorists don’t acknowledge him when he stands outside asking for change. - Photo by Stacy Ryburn

Most people ignore Larry Laubach when he stands alongside a busy street asking for money in south Fayetteville, the homeless 68-year-old said.

Some make snide remarks, but no one has gotten out of the car to confront him.

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"It don't bother me," he said. "I'm used to it."

A few spare some dollars or change, Laubach said.

Officials agree most of Northwest Arkansas has seen an increase in the number of panhandlers over the past few months. A June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision prompted lower courts to recognize the practice as a form of free speech, prompting cities all over the country to review their ordinances.

The region's homeless population also has risen. A survey released this year from the University of Arkansas Community and Family Institute found 2,951 people live without residences of their own in Northwest Arkansas. The number revealed a sharp increase, about 500, from 2015 and more than doubled 2007's findings.

A rumor of an organized, low-level scam involving people not truly in need and brought from outside the state to panhandle also has made its to way to the ears of city officials. Nothing has substantiated the claim.

"I'm more concerned with the homeless population as a whole," Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan said. "I'm not sure what we're going to do there."

The rules

The 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona prompted several lower court rulings pertaining to freedom of speech and panhandling. The Reed case came about after a small church sued when the city enacted ordinances stipulating where and when churches and other entities could place signs for events and services.

A federal judge threw out a Springfield, Ill., ordinance banning panhandling months after the Reed decision, saying no law could distinguish one form of speech from another based on its content. Similar court rulings followed.

Fayetteville revised its ordinances in late 2016 to remove any language prohibiting panhandling, peddling, vending or soliciting donations on a street, sidewalk or park. The city doesn't have a law making begging illegal outright but has outlawed for safety reasons standing or walking on a street outside of a crosswalk.

Organizers of charitable events, such as the Fire Department's "Fill the Boot" fundraiser for muscular dystrophy research, must have a permit to approach cars stopped on the street. Bentonville also makes no mention of panhandling or similar activities in its ordinances.

The language differs in Springdale's ordinances. A solicitor or peddler must have a permit from the city clerk. No one in Springdale can walk or stand within a highway or an intersecting roadway within 100 feet of the highway without a permit.

Rogers prohibits pedestrians from soliciting money or contributions from motor vehicles without a permit. The police chief decides whether to grant permission.

The ordinance is meant to serve the compelling government interest of public safety, said Jennifer Waymack, Rogers senior staff attorney. The police chief will only deny a permit if approving it would pose a public safety risk, she said.

First Amendment analyses break into two types of restrictions: content-based speech and regulations on time, place and manner of speech, Waymack said. Rogers' ordinance falls under the latter category and passes legal muster, she said. The city doesn't discern between a single person asking for money on the street and firefighters seeking donations; everyone has to get a permit.

"It's not because we care about the speech. It's not because we're out to get homeless or poor people," Waymack said. "It's because we want to make sure they're safe if they're going to do it. We want to make sure everyone is safe."

An uptick

Calls and questions about panhandling have picked up since Fayetteville changed its ordinances, said Sgt. Craig Stout, police spokesman.

"It's very obvious in the fact that you can't drive past some of the major intersections and not see somebody out there," he said.

Residents rarely call because a panhandler has harassed them. Most residents call out of concern for the people out on the streets, Stout said.

He stressed residents should stay mindful of what panhandlers might do with the money given to them. He recommended donating to a charitable organization such as 7 Hills, the Salvation Army or a local church.

Madison Coffelt, 20, a University of Arkansas student from Austin, Texas, said panhandlers don't bother her unless they get aggressive. She said she'll occasionally give money to someone asking but prefers to offer food or volunteer with a charitable organization.

"Coming from Austin, it's definitely something that you come across every time you go outside," Coffelt said. "People are always asking for money. You just have to be respectful. I always am at least."

Capt. Derek Hudson, Springdale police spokesman, said the city also has seen a rise in panhandling, but each situation is different. Officers will typically speak with someone violating an ordinance and only give out tickets if the person refuses to cooperate or if it becomes an ongoing problem, he said. Fines can reach up to $1,000 or $2,000 for a repeat offense. Hudson said Springdale police have issued three tickets since January 2016.

Officer Keith Foster with the Rogers Police Department said the city gets two or three calls about panhandlers every day. Officers usually tell people standing on the street asking for money they have to get a permit. If an officer runs into repeat offenders they may get a ticket, he said. Rogers' fines also can reach up to $1,000 or $2,000 for a repeat offense. Foster said police there have received 112 calls about solicitation since the beginning of the year and issued 12 citations.

"Out there along the interstates and stuff like that -- that's definitely been more recent," Foster said. "It's more frequent than it had been. I'm sure it's everyone -- Bentonville, Springdale, Fayetteville. I'm sure we're all in the same boat."

Officer Gene Page with the Bentonville Police Department said officers haven't received a noticeable increase in calls about panhandling.

"This could be in part because the public is aware of the ruling and are not reporting to law enforcement," he said. "We sometimes see people standing near the exits at I-49."

Danny Straessle, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said it's up to local jurisdictions to handle anyone standing or walking on a state highway right of way.


Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of the University of Arkansas Community and Family Institute, said the rise in panhandling can be attributed to a lag effect of the Reed decision. He acknowledged that homelessness is on the rise, but most panhandlers, at least in Northwest Arkansas, might not be homeless.

A 2015 Community and Family Institute study showed seven of 168 homeless residents in Benton and Washington counties listed panhandling as a primary source of income.

Fitzpatrick didn't doubt most panhandlers are in need in some way but made a distinction between needy and homeless.

"People see it as a way of acquiring pretty low-impact fast money," he said. "It doesn't take much to stand there."

Eric Tars, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, disagreed.

"Panhandling is not easy," he said. "It's usually demeaning. It's not something that many people turn to voluntarily. It's something they turn to as a last resort."

Tars said the Reed decision and subsequent lower court rulings have clearly identified panhandling and activities like it as form of protected speech. Every case that has come forward dealing with panhandling and a city's ordinance restricting the practice has resulted in a judge overturning the ordinance, he said.

What's happening in Northwest Arkansas also is happening across the country, he said. It's not because of the "millionaire panhandler" myth, it's because of a lack of affordable housing, supportive services and livable wages, he said.

"As homelessness grows, visibility of it grows," Tars said. "Then you get people who are calling for the cities to do something to get the homeless people off the street who are panhandling or just sitting and sleeping."

An organized effort?

Police have heard rumors recently of organized, outside groups posing as panhandlers, but haven't seen any evidence to back the claim. Stout recalled reports of a church from Louisiana coming to Fayetteville asking for money to help drug addicts but added they've come through the area for years.

Page said he was unaware of any organized panhandling in Bentonville.

Deja Glover, case manager at 7 Hills, said she had never heard of such a thing. If anything, people tend to prey upon the homeless by hiring them for a job for which they are never paid or getting them to unknowingly take part in a financial scheme.

Most people found asking for money on the streets truly are needy, Glover said. They may be homeless or they may have a place to live but need money to pay bills. Some people are passing through and need money for travel. Others may not be aware of services like 7 Hills and panhandle instead.

Chuck Coggin and his girlfriend have lived in a van for a little more than a year. They came to Fayetteville from Missouri on Tuesday seeking money and help. Coggin said the two don't place responsibility for their situation on anyone but themselves and are just trying to get by until getting their feet underneath them.

Coggin acknowledged the stigma panhandlers get. He said he's always had a little wanderlust.

"We ain't all bad people out here," he said.

NW News on 05/08/2017

Print Headline: Region sees uptick in panhandling

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