NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Court rulings have hampered the city’s efforts to curb it. Police officers are powerless to stop it. Yet, residents continue to complain about it.
Panhandling – people begging for money in streets and on sidewalks from Robeson Boulevard to Robinson Street and virtually every other corner of the city – has been an issue that New Brunswick officials have struggled with for years.
Keith Jones II, the chief of staff in Mayor Jim Cahill’s office, said the city has recently been receiving more complaints about panhandlers.
During a live-streamed chat Friday afternoon, Jones said that residents may experience myriad feelings when approached by a panhandler – empathy, fear, guilt.
“Do not give them money,” he said. “Do not give them money at all. The best way that you can help us kind of ease-up on the panhandling is not giving them money.
“If you don’t give them money, they will either relocate to another location and when that location dries up, they’ll relocate to another location. When that location dries up, they’ll locate to another location.”
What this will eventually do, Jones said, is “put a panhandler out of business.”
Separating opportunists from people down on their luck is just one facet of a complicated issue that is also entwined with food insecurity, homelessness and drug addition.
The city has 27 food pantries, three community kitchens, Unity Square, a Code Blue initiative on cold nights, a Code Red initiative on hot nights, the Make It County campaign and various other programs aimed at alleviating the need for people to beg for money on the streets.
What further exacerbates the issue of panhandling in New Brunswick is that many people seem to make their way here from hundreds or thousands of miles around.
On a recent day at the Dignity Center at Memorial Stadium, the final five people on line to use the shower facilities were from out of town, Jones said. One was from Hartford, Conn. One was from Florida. One was from The Bronx.
The city has unsuccessfully tried to address the problem of panhandling by passing ordinances to prohibit it.
John Fleming, a homeless man represented by the ACLU, successfully won a temporary injunction in Middlesex County Superior Court in 2014 after the city adopted two ordinances. One made panhandling illegal, one required a permit before seeking donations for philanthropic endeavors.
The following year, the city reached an out-of-court settlement with Fleming, who had the backing of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
The city not only agreed to repeal the ordinances, but made a $4,500 donation to Elijah's Promise, a community kitchen, and made a $3,000 payment toward court costs and attorney fees for Fleming’s legal team.
Since the issue persists five years later, Jones said offered some advice beyond not giving panhandlers money.
If you want to help them, you can offer to buy them food.
You can ask if they called 211, the countywide coordinated assessment homeless hotline. It’s the channel that everyone in Middlesex County must go through to access social programs for food insecurity and shelter.
Jones said you should call the police if a panhandler seems threatening.
“Panhandlers who are here for a better way of life will take the resource that you give them,” Jones said.