PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Kennedy Plaza is one of the spots often swimming with panhandlers in Providence. They can be found near the entryways to the 7-Eleven and the CVS, and near the RIPTA bus shelters. In other parts of the city, people ask for money at red lights, holding signs.
The practice is perfectly legal, as long as panhandlers aren’t committing another crime; Providence stopped enforcing its “aggressive panhandling” ordinance in February after multiple federal lawsuits, including one in Cranston, resulted in courts affirming that panhandling is free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino, Jr., who owns a business on Kennedy Plaza, has convened a group of business owners, city officials, social service providers and police to form a comprehensive plan to address the issue of panhandling and homelessness.
The group, which includes Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, met Wednesday in a meeting organized by Paolino. There was a subsequent meeting Thursday morning of the Downtown Improvement District, whose chairman is Paolino.
“I don’t think they want to be sleeping on sidewalks,” Paolino said at Thursday morning’s meeting. “They should sleep in a bed, not the sidewalk, right?”
The solution is complicated, according to John MacDonald, vice president of adult services at Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest homeless shelter.
“The issues are much larger than homelessness,” MacDonald explained. Substance abuse, mental health and a lack of affordable housing are all contributing factors to homelessness, he said. Part of the solution will include convincing property owners to rent to those currently living on the street and in shelters.
“So having landlords come on board and saying, ‘You know what? We’ll do this together, we’ll be a part of the solution and we’ll commit to that,'” MacDonald said. “It is not a problem that you can arrest your way out of,” he added.
MacDonald doesn’t personally give cash to panhandlers, in part because of his concern that they may use the money to fuel substance abuse addictions. Instead, he starts a conversation.
“In a really non-judgmental way,” he explained. “Some of these people might be really marginalized, and might be high … I talk to them, but I don’t give money.”
Joe Paolino suggested licensing panhandlers: “Why can’t they get a permit like Del’s Lemonade gets a permit?”
A city spokesperson said the city solicitor would need to look into whether that and other suggestions, such as designating a certain area for panhandling, would violate the First Amendment court decisions.
Emily Crowell, a member of the improvement district’s board and a spokeswoman for Elorza, also said the city has been working on possible solutions for months, which could include donation meters on the street where people can drop spare change if they are uncomfortable giving to a panhandler. The money in the meters would be distributed to charitable organizations.
Paolino said he and Mayor Elorza met at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and discussed working together on the problem.
“He knows I’ve been critical of him,” Paolino said. “We’ve agreed to get together.” Paolino said his own attorneys were looking into the constitutionality of panhandling ordinances. He hopes to have a draft proposal to address the issue by a Sept. 14 meeting.
On Thursday morning, Olawale Afalayan had a different perspective on the matter. The Providence man has been homeless for three years, and was panhandling outside the 7-Eleven at Kennedy Plaza.
“I sleep in the park on the grass,” Afalayan told Eyewitness News. He said he makes about $30 per day panhandling.
“I don’t know why they’re getting mad,” Afalayan said, referring to the business owners in Kennedy Plaza. “We’re not taking anything away from the businesses. I think they need to be more openhearted and kindhearted to us, because we have nothing,” he said.This is a video former Mayor Paolino has released about the panhandling situation: