They’re easy to spot — men and occasionally women standing near freeway entrance and exit ramps or at busy intersections with hand-printed signs that tug at the heartstrings: “Will Work for Food” or “Homeless Vet Needs Help.”
Every few minutes, a driver pulls over and hands out coins, a dollar or two or a sack of fast food.
Panhandling, historically a big-city problem, has moved to the suburbs in the past several years, and cities such as Apple Valley, Burnsville and others in the south metro are noticing more of it.
In the wake of Anoka adopting an ordinance in May that makes it illegal to ask a person for cash in a dozen or more different circumstances, the Apple Valley City Council talked about the issue at its July 9 work session and were briefed by police Capt. John Bermel.
Council Member Ruth Grendahl said the most complaints she receives from residents at this time of year are about panhandlers.
“We have a regular presence of panhandlers, regular to occasional,” Bermel said last week. “Our experience is that very few of them are actually people in need, or if they are in need, they don’t want to use the resources that are available for help.”
Standing on a street corner isn’t against the law; it’s a First Amendment right, police said. But if panhandlers are impeding traffic, standing in the road, harassing drivers or pedestrians or trespassing on private property, police can ticket them, Bermel and other police officials said.
Panhandlers’ favorite spots in the south metro are along County Road 42 at Cedar or Galaxie avenues, police said. They’ve been seen on McKnight Road and Burnsville Parkway, in Target and Cub Foods parking lots and at entrance and exit ramps for Interstates 35W and 35E.
Apple Valley Council Member Tom Goodwin said, “To be blunt about it, there are certain communities that don’t have panhandlers … We’re seen as a target-rich environment. If you don’t give them money, we won’t have panhandlers because the panhandlers, who are very organized, will say let’s pack up and go someplace else.”
The council decided a specific ordinance wasn’t needed — yet — and that laws already in place could be used for aggressive begging.
Police in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Rosemount said they are proactive about panhandling. They go out, talk to the person and try to put them in touch with organizations that can help if there is a legitimate need, such as 360 Communities, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon or local churches.
What’s worrisome on a moral level, Bermel said, is when the panhandlers falsely claim to be veterans.
He noted one Apple Valley panhandler who bragged on Twitter in June that he’d collected “$102 in 50 minutes along with 3 gift cards and food.”
In Burnsville, Police Chief Eric Gieseke said there have been at least 19 calls specifically about panhandlers since Jan. 1. Numbers can be deceptive, though, because other calls could have been labeled “suspicious person,” “check welfare” or “soliciting.”
It’s an issue of traffic safety, their safety and public safety in general, the chief said.
“We’re proactive with them when we have time,” Gieseke said. “Most of the time they’re cooperative and willing to leave. We have, on occasion, tagged them.”
Rosemount Police Chief Mitch Scott said the city hasn’t had much of an issue with panhandlers, but he knows it’s been a bigger issue in Apple Valley from his time as an officer there.
“Truly there are some legitimate people out there that need help,” he said. “Others find it quite lucrative.”
What is the best way to help?
“Our officers know many people who are legitimately in need, and they aren’t standing on street corners,” Bermel said. “We just encourage people, when they feel that push to give something, take a deep breath, go find a legitimate organization and give what they would have given to that person to that organization and it will literally touch somebody’s life.”