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Getting a handle on panhandlers: City sees increase of people soliciting money at busy streets, intersections, downtown

A local man who says he is unemployed and homeless accepts the generousity from a passerby on Wednesday morning along Hannah Avenue.(Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- An influx of panhandlers, sometimes with cardboard signs pleading for help, are becoming more frequent at busy streets and intersections in Bemidji.

Police Chief Mike Mastin said the department tends to receive more calls about panhandlers during the Fourth of July week because of their increased visibility with extra visitors to town.

Mastin said the overall economic climate and other factors have lead to a rise in the panhandling in the area.

“We’re starting to see it more in the Upper Midwest,” Mastin said. “Moorhead deals with it a lot, East Grand Forks deals with it -- we’re not an isolated community in having this.”

Residents are starting to take notice, too. On the popular Facebook page “Bemidji Chit Chat,” some have raised concerns in recent days about the legality of panhandling and how legitimate the stories of the people doing it are. One post read “I honestly don't think the people standing there are actually homeless.” Another resident voiced concerns over safety, saying she had been confronted during the evening and it had scared her to say she didn’t have money to give.

Mastin said panhandling in busy areas isn’t against the law as long as it’s not “aggressive.”

According to Bemidji’s Code of Ordinances, section 18-35 deals with aggressive solicitation: or “disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and contributes to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places and to a sense of fear, intimidation and disorder,” the ordinance reads.

“Someone sitting on a street corner, wherever, with a sign saying ‘Give me a dollar’ that’s not illegal,” Mastin said.

However, the act of asking for money does become illegal in certain situations, such as when a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if the panhandling is done after sunset, if the panhandler makes physical contact with the person he or she is asking for money from, or when a person is followed by someone asking for money, according to the ordinance.

If a panhandler approaches the window of a vehicle to ask for money, the act is not considered “aggressive solicitation” unless the person in the vehicle feels fearful or harassed.

“That’s personal -- I hate to say it’s a grey area, but there’s interpretation there. It’s based solely on the person making the complaint,” Mastin said.

According to the code, people also can not solicit money in any public transportation vehicle, restrooms or a bus stops or shelters, as well as within 80 feet in any direction from an automated teller machine or entrance to banks, check-cashing businesses or other financial institutions.

Street performers, such as someone playing a guitar with the case open on the ground, are allowed.

Kay Murphy, Bemidji city clerk, said there is no specific permit needed by panhandlers.

“There isn’t any permit. How in the heck are we going to permit someone who doesn’t have any money typically to begin with?,” she said.

Murphy said police officers will usually go and tell the panhandlers to move along if there is a complaint.

“This is what we have,” Murphy said referring to the city code. “This does what we need it to do.”

To read the ordinance regarding aggressive solicitation, visit and click on “City Code and Documents” and then on “City Code,” which will take you to a database.

One man’s story

Late Wednesday morning, a man who didn’t want to give his name stood on the street just off the Hannah Avenue intersection with Paul Bunyan Drive NW. He held a sign reading “Homeless, Diabetic SR, Can work 4 $, Thank you + God Bless.” The man told the Pioneer there are many misconceptions and stereotypes regarding homeless people asking for money.

“People think we’re all drunks or druggies,” he said.

The man said his claims of being homeless are legitimate, saying he and his wife have been living out of their car since their house was foreclosed on. The 65-year-old said he had been on the corner for about a half hour Wednesday and had been asking to work for money.

“I’m not really asking for money. I got ‘for work’ on my sign and I have had a of couple jobs out of it,” he said. “Like if somebody wants their truck unloaded or something like that. Give me $20 bucks for that. Fine, it’s only for a few minutes.”

The man said he has been trying to move he and his wife into a homeless shelter in both Bemidji and Duluth for some time but has been having difficulties. He said both cities have large homeless problems. According to the man, no one has had any problems with him panhandling as of yet.

“As long as you don’t bother anybody or anything like that. I don’t say a word to anybody except ‘Thank you’ and ‘God bless you,’” he said.