An increase in the number of panhandlers in Milford sends a message that Beth El Director Toni Dolan thinks is the wrong message, 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.”

A committee recently formed in Milford aimed at addressing the panhandler situation and possibly creating legislation that makes it illegal to stand in public places and ask for money.

Mayor Ben Blake said a committee of social service representatives, law enforcement personnel, state legislators and others met recently in Milford to start talking about the influx of panhandlers in Milford in the past few months.

On Monday night, several social service representatives spoke to the Board of Aldermen, letting them know about the efforts.

Deepa Joseph, deputy director of health for the Milford Health  Department, said the city is following an established program called “Have A Heart, Give Smart,” which will focus on education and outreach.

She said the program will be a multi-media campaign aimed at reaching panhandlers and the public and telling them where to find services and the best way to donate to people in need.

Milford residents have become used to seeing several regular panhandlers — people holding signs and asking for money — at various locations in Milford.

Blake said residents have been calling city offices to complain or to ask questions about the people asking for money. Some callers express concern for the panhandlers and want to make sure there are sufficient social service programs available for people in need.

On the streets

There are mixed views in the community. Some business owners have taken steps to keep panhandlers from their property; others say they are concerned for the people asking for money.

“For the safety of the customers, we don’t allow [panhandling],” said Barnes & Noble store manager Marcus Nelson. “If we see them, or a customer notifies us, we will disperse it very quickly. If it is the same person, we will call the police.”

Nelson noticed a decrease in panhandling outside of Barnes & Noble after the store contacted police.

“We contacted the police because the same individuals [were there] and it was getting out of hand,” he said.

Other business owners said they have noticed a police presence and police directing panhandlers to move along.

Sonic general manager Carissa Thompson said she has seen police take action and she thinks the police should be directing panhandlers away from businesses and their customers.

“I’ve seen them multiple times, people being arrested or confronted by the police,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that while she thinks panhandling should be addressed, she feels badly for the people on the streets asking for money.

“I feel extremely sad,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable and I could never imagine standing outside holding a sign.”

Resident Kevin Boyd of Milford feels differently when passing someone asking for money.

“I never feel uncomfortable about their presence,” he said, but he said he sometimes is skeptical about the people out there because some appear capable of working.

An online news site reported a petition recently, in which a resident was seeking action to curb the increase in people soliciting monetary donations.

“Many of these ‘regulars’ appear to hardly be homeless, sporting clean clothes, haircuts and cell phones,” the petition states. “Panhandling should not be allowed in Milford. It is an eyesore to our community. If these people are truly homeless there are many reasonable options available in Milford and the surrounding towns for them.”

The creator of the petition stated that he offered medium type labor work to one panhandler for a day at a rate of $10 per hour, but the panhandler refused the work.

“That leads me to believe he is not homeless and likely doing better behind the scenes than many others in Milford who are actually working hard for their income,” the petitioner wrote.

Resident Kathy Bielawa of Milford, on the other hand, said she thinks the community should be taking care of the individuals on the street.

“I don’t think it is fair,” Bielawa said. “I think families should help out more. You would think they have someone to go to for help rather than going out to the street.”

Helping out

That’s the perception that has Dolan concerned. She went so far as to say that people should not be giving money to those who stand on the street asking for it: Rather, people should donate to the agencies that exist to help people in need.

“It is not helping to hand them money because the money is not necessarily going to productive purposes,” Dolan said.

She said her agency knows the local panhandlers and has spoken to them. She said some are people who come to Milford because there are no laws prohibiting them and it’s an easy way to collect money.

There is a lot of need in the community, Dolan added. But she emphasized that there are food programs, meal programs, housing programs and programs to help with various energy bills.

Mayor Blake agreed that there are a number of programs in Milford to help the needy, and one prong of the three-prong approach to addressing the panhandler situation will be to make sure people know about these programs.

The other two tasks the committee will address are public education and consideration of new laws to address panhandling.

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.

The committee broke into three groups when it met recently, and each will focus on the three different areas.

“We want an effective and comprehensive solution to this issue,” Blake said.

Education

United Way Director Gary Johnson said he thinks education will be a key aspect of the committee work, letting people know about all the resources available. There are funds available for rent and utility bills, he said, adding,  “2-1-1 is a good resource for people in need. There are a lot of resources.”

Johnson thinks the number of panhandlers has increased in Milford partly because of the economy and partly because Milford has no ordinance against panhandling, as do some surrounding communities.

“I hear people come here from other cities because it’s easy to do this here,” Johnson said.