METHUEN — Officials say there have been complaints about people frequently seen asking for money in front of businesses and walking on traffic islands; however, per the law, they are doing nothing wrong.

Police Chief Scott McNamara said there continues to be a steady flow of complaints about panhandling in the city.

“We investigate to determine if there is an authentic public safety risk. If there is, we put a stop to it. If not, we allow it to continue,” he said. “Many cities and towns in Massachusetts have attempted to place common sense restrictions on panhandling but the courts have made it abundantly clear, if there is no public safety risk, the behavior is a protected expression of one’s First Amendment right.”

However, he said telling the difference between freedom of expression and a public safety risk can be a “delicate balancing act.”

“Every situation is different,” McNamara said. “A panhandler that jumps in front of your moving car, bangs on your window, and aggressively solicits a donation is different than a panhandler that waits patiently holding a sign and walks up to your stopped vehicle in traffic in order to receive a donation voluntarily given. One scenario the police can and should intervene, the other is a protected form of expression.”

McNamara also said residents might consider donating to charities rather than giving money directly to an individual.

“I believe most people are inherently good natured and well-meaning so when they see a person in need they instinctively want to help,” he said. “Sadly, the donated funds are often not used for their intended purpose. Frequently, the recipient uses the funds to fuel a cycle of addiction and a bad situation is made worse.”

While not always the case, many people who resort to asking for money on the street are also facing homelessness. In November 2020, City Councilor-at-Large Jessica Finocchiaro founded the City Council’s Substance Abuse, Mental Health and Homelessness Committee.

West District Councilor Michael Simard and council Chairman DJ Beauregard joined Finocchiaro as well as a myriad of city employees and local activists including Michael Gorman, founder of The Movement Family in Lawrence.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a homeless shelter was set up at the Days Inn on Pelham Street. However, Finocchiaro said the shelter has since closed as it could no longer be funded.

She was also disappointed to see that in this year’s budget, no funding was allocated to establish a homeless task force or for mental health professionals in the Police Department.

“Everyone deserves to have a safe place to call home,” Finocchiaro said.

Mayor Neil Perry described panhandling as a “multifaceted issue.”

“The city is working with the appropriate internal departments to promote public safety and to educate the public on available housing and related aid programs, consistent with applicable law and individual rights,” he said.

In December 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts General Law Ch. 85, Sec. 17A, which put a ban on panhandling, was unconstitutional.

The decision stemmed from the case, Massachusetts Coalition For The Homeless vs. City of Fall River.

Prior to the SJC’s decision, anyone found panhandling would be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to $100.

In the court’s decision, then-Chief Justice Barbara Lenk said: “The statute permits the same conduct when undertaken for other purposes, however, such as selling newspapers, and it specifically exempts activity that would otherwise fall within the statute’s sweep if conducted by a nonprofit organization with a permit from the local chief of police.”

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