BENNINGTON — An ordinance that would prevent people from panhandling on the town’s public streets has received support from some Select Board members.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town became involved after representatives of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Better Bennington Corp. had concerns about “people soliciting funds on the street or in parking lots.”
The proposed ordinance would not apply to private property but would make it illegal to approach people on the sidewalk, at an automated teller machine or in other public spaces. Violation of the ordinance would be a civil matter, meaning police could fine violators, but they wouldn’t be charged with a crime.
Hurd told board members Monday night that several people told him they were solicited, especially while spending time downtown.
“Although the individual (who was soliciting) may not have been threatening, they were made to feel uncomfortable by the request for funds,” Hurd said.
The proposed ordinance addresses specifics like continuing to solicit from a person who has rejected the request, touching people or blocking their passage, and using violent, obscene or threatening gestures.
Select Board member Thomas Jacobs said he had some concerns about the ordinance and whether it was needed.
“Is this an issue? A real problem?” he said. “Because, frankly, I don’t see or feel it here. Maybe I’m just missing something. There may be some cities and towns around the state that have (passed an ordinance). I would be interested to hear their experience with it.”
Jacobs said he wasn’t sure the enforcement would serve as a deterrent.
Jonah Spivak, who owns a downtown business, said he has noticed an increase in panhandlers in recent months. He said he was also concerned that their presence could hurt local businesses.
“I’ve grown up here. I’ve lived here all my life. This is not something I’m used to seeing in Bennington,” he said.
Spivak suggested that if the ordinance was approved, police officers would be encouraged to tell solicitors about the resources in Bennington that could help people who needed food or a place to stay.
Board member Sharyn Brush described her own recent experience with a few young people blocking the sidewalk. She said she thought the experience could be especially intimidating for women.
Selectman Greg Van Houten said he was concerned because he didn’t want to be insensitive to people in poverty. However, he pointed out there are organizations and programs in place to help people in legitimate need.
Resident Michael Bethel suggested the board consider a vendor’s license. Bethel said the solicitors who approach people and ask for money are simply “selling their life story” and said it could be curbed by requiring a vendor license.
The discussion Monday was the first public hearing on the proposed ordinance. The Select Board would not take action on it until the next meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Bennington fire facility.
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