Faced with mounting public concern about panhandlers, The Mitchell Administration has taken steps to try and alleviate those concerns. The Administration and the City Council have been reluctant to attempt to regulate the street beggars for fear the city might be dragged into an expensive legal battle with the ACLU over the panhandler's First Amendment right to ask motorists for loot.

In searching for a way to calm the public outcry the Council recently debated placing signs at some of the more popular begging spots that would encourage motorists to donate to local charitable organizations rather than to the beggars.

Not sure that signage would work, Mayor Jon Mitchell ordered jersey barriers to be placed at various locations frequented by the panhandlers.  First the barriers appeared at Coggeshall Street near the entrance to Market Basket. Most recently they have popped up at Routes 6 and 140. Nothing yet at the Octopus.

The barriers near Market Basket seem to have made little impact as the panhandlers, while restricted in area have not been deterred. In fact, I've seen them sitting or leaning on the barriers. Life is wonderful.

Jersey Barriers near Market Basket in New Bedford / TSM
Jersey Barriers near Market Basket in New Bedford / TSM

At-Large City Councilor Ian Abreau tells me that while he respects the panhandlers' First Amendment right to solicit money, he does not condone "aggressive panhandling" at the intersections or in store parking lots. Abreau says he understands the "thought process" and "rationale" behind the jersey barriers but says they have become a "new form of park bench" where the "panhandlers are now sitting and asking for money as opposed to standing and asking for money."

Abreau also says, "it is incumbent upon our entire state and federal delegation to work with us to help solve this concern."  He is right.

A cynical person might suggest that the barriers are a minimal way to show the public that City Hall is listening during an election year. I don't believe the barriers are nearly enough to address the public's concerns and quite frankly on their own I give them zero chance of deterring panhandling.

I sought comment for this article from New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell as well as the Chair and Vice Chair of the City Council Committee on Public Safety, Deborah Coelho and Brian Gomes.  Responses were not received before the article was published. - Barry Richard

Editor's Note: Barry Richard is the afternoon host on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from Noon-3pm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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