MILFORD — If it seems like there has been an uptick in the number of panhandlers sitting at stoplights or entrances to shopping centers, city officials have noticed it too.

Justin Rosen., Mayor Ben Blake’s chief of staff, said City Hall has been receiving feedback indicating that the issue is on the increase.

“We got a couple of calls about folks who are particularly aggressive in certain areas of town, such as the stretch of Boston Post Road, and in and around the mall — that’s usually the hot spot,” Rosen said.

Police officer Marilisa Anania agreed the numbers of panhandlers in the city are somewhat higher than in previous years, although some of that could be attributed to shopping centers being busier. With more traffic comes more people seeing the panhandlers, and thus more calls to police to report them.

She added most panhandlers are not approaching people directly, but instead are sitting at parking lot entrances.

In an effort to reduce panhandling, the city has been re-emphasizing the Have a Heart, Give Smart campaign. According to Blake, the focus of the campaign is to educate and encourage the public to find alternative ways of giving, such as by making donations to local human service agencies that provide help for those in need — rather than giving money directly to panhandlers.

“This strategy ensures that individuals in need have access to the numerous services available to them through local social support agencies,” Blake said.

Over the past several years, the campaign has utilized billboards and signs posted around town to encourage residents and visitors to say no to panhandling and yes to giving, he said.

The newest billboard to go up is on the Gulf Street railroad underpass, on Gulf Street and Buckingham Avenue.

Additionally, there will soon be some new A-Frame sandwich board signs placed around the city.

“As part of the campaign, staff members from the Beth-El Shelter in Milford and case workers from the city’s health and human services department have conducted outreach and provided information to panhandlers in Milford regarding local services available to assist,” Blake said.

Mixed reaction

A recent post on the “You know you live in Milford CT” Facebook page referencing the campaign has drawn much reaction — including some criticism.

Eleven people shared the post and more than 60 commented, many writing they would prefer to give directly to the panhandlers — either with food or money. Others disagreed, arguing that panhandlers are scammers who don’t make an effort to find employment.

Rosen said panhandlers and complaints about them seem to be a cyclical issue.

“When there are a lot of people out there and panhandlers are making frequent requests at restaurants and stores, we’ll notice an increase in calls to our office, to the Health Department, and the Police Department,” Rosen said.

For “smart giving,” Rosen recommends finding a charity in and around the Greater New Haven area that provides direct assistance to people.

“It’s a way to ensure that the charities in and around the Milford area have the resources that they need to do the important work that they do.”

Local charities that help those in need include: Milford Food 2 Kids, Bridges HealthCare, the Boys and Girls Club of Milford, the United Way of Milford, the Beth-El Center, Team Inc. and the Milford Senior Center, he said.

HUMAN

An initiative in Milford that has spun off from the Have a Heart Smart campaign is HUMAN (Homeless and Unsheltered Multi-Agency Network)

HUMAN is a coordinated effort from the Dept. of Public Health, the Milford Police Department, the Beth-El Center, the mayor’s office, the library and others in the city to look closely at the unsheltered homeless.

The unsheltered homeless are people who, for most nights of the week, don’t have a place to stay, Rosen said.

“We check on them when it’s really cold, we check on them when it’s really hot. Through outreach efforts, we check on them on a monthly basis,” Rosen said. “It really sits all the stakeholders around a table, when the police department can say, ‘I saw Mr. Smith today. He was having a really hard time’ and our mental health organization can say ‘We’ve been looking for Mr. Smith. He is due for an evaluation.’”

Jenn Paradis, executive director of Beth-El , said she’s happy to be able to reinforce the HUMAN initiative once again. Paradis is the group’s chairman.

“We’re really excited to be bringing this back. We think it’s really a helpful reminder to the city — as a program and as a message,” she said. “We talk about individual cases, community education and data — Those are our three major areas.”

Forum on panhandling

In an effort to educate the public in regard to those in need of community services, the HUMAN group recently recorded a forum on panhandling.

“We are releasing it soon. Partners on that table gave presentations on their individual agencies and the services they provide,” Paradis said. “We gave recommendations on how folks should navigate those situations. Our belief is we all want to do the right thing and sometimes need help navigating that because it’s a difficult situation.”

At the group’s monthly meetings, Paradis said, members develop strategies to address homelessness.

“We talk about critical cases — those folks in the community who are experiencing homelessness and touching all of our agencies, and talk about how we can collaboratively help them,” she said.

She said the experience of forming the HUMAN group “has opened our eyes to why people are really vulnerable, and it’s just an opportunity to have a good conversation about an issue we can all do work around.”

It’s a misconception that people who are living outside or are unsheltered want to be there or have made definitive choices to be there, according to Paradis.

“What we do know about panhandling and unsheltered homelessness is that they have more complex health issues, more stronger histories of abuse and trauma in their lives,” she said. “The general population of these individuals has really high barriers to obtaining and maintaining housing.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com