Billboard is first step in city's efforts to address panhandling

Local panhandlers may not be happy with a new billboard that went up in Milford last week.

The billboard downtown near Daniel Street encourages residents and visitors to say “no” to panhandling and “yes” to giving, according to members of a committee studying panhandling in Milford.

Members from various sectors of the community have been meeting since August as part of the mayor’s Have a Heart, Give Smart Task Force to develop a strategy to address the issue of panhandling in Milford.

The task force is made up of representatives from municipal agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations in Milford that are impacted by or provide services for people in need.

The committee formed in response to a growing number of panhandlers — people holding signs and asking for money — at various locations in Milford.

Mayor Ben Blake said residents started calling city offices to complain or to ask questions about the people asking for money, prompting the formation of a committee to address the situation.

The committee is pursuing a three-prong approach: Education, outreach and consideration of specific laws addressing panhandlers.

There are some laws on the books that address the situation in part, such as laws against trespassing and creating a public disturbance.

“But some municipalities have specific panhandling ordinances,” Blake said in August.

Beth El Director Toni Dolan added that she thinks panhandlers send the wrong message to city residents, and that is that Milford is not doing enough to help the needy. “It's frustrating for me,” said Dolan, who listed a number of programs in Milford designed to help people struggling financially. “There are a lot of resources if people want help.”

After researching the matter, the task force recommended the launch of an awareness campaign called "Have a Heart, Give Smart,” an effort to address what it found are often the root causes of panhandling.

“The focus of the campaign is to educate and encourage members of the public to find alternative ways of giving by making donations to local human service agencies that provide help for those in need, rather than giving  money directly to panhandlers,” committee members said in a press release issued Thursday.

“What we were trying to accomplish is an attempt to better meet the needs of those who actually panhandle while addressing the concerns of community members,” Blake said. “We as a city need to ensure that these individuals have access to the numerous services available to them through local social support agencies.”

The Have a Heart, Give Smart campaign launched this past Friday with the release of the billboard. Additionally, the task force will work to provide educational materials throughout the community regarding panhandling and the importance of giving to local agencies that can provide lasting assistance to individuals in need, the committee said.

Finally, as part of  the campaign, staff members from the Beth El Shelter in Milford will conduct outreach and provide information to panhandlers in Milford regarding local services available to assist them.