ST. GEORGE – Just as the snowbirds migrate to southwest Utah to avoid much of the snow and cold of winter, so too do transients who may find the area to be a warm-weather port. This can bring about an increase in panhandling, which officials are asking area residents not to support.
Rather than sparing a few dollars that may not go as far otherwise, officials are asking the public direct those who appear to be in need to such places as Switchpoint Community Resource Center, 948 N. 1300 West, or The Salvation Army’s service corps center at 803 S. Bluff St., both in St. George. (Resource links follow at the end of this report.)
Police respond to panhandlers “a couple times a day,” St. George Police Capt. Gordon McCracken said.
“We always see a little bit of a spike,” McCracken said of the transient population in St. George this time of year, adding that it tends to increase beginning early November.
Panhandling is becoming a more common sight in St. George, a news release from Switchpoint said. Besides the weather factor that Utah’s Dixie offers, Switchpoint Executive Director Carol Hollowell said word gets out about the generous nature of area residents.
“The residents of St. George are so kind and giving but word about St. George’s generosity has gotten out and we are seeing more panhandler’s staying around the area,” Hollowell said in the news release.
“There are also many individuals who are asking for help when all they need to do is stop by Switchpoint,” Hollowell said. “We have case managers on site to assist them in finding solutions to their problem.”
Panhandling is considered a constitutionally-protected right under the First Amendment.
A statewide anti-panhandling law in Utah was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2012.
However, as part of a traffic-safety law passed in 2014, panhandlers and others have since been restricted in where they can ask for help, protest or promote a charity.
Under the law, panhandlers and others cannot “engage in conduct that impedes or blocks traffic” by being on highway on-ramps and off-ramps, along state roads, or in the median. They must be on a sidewalk. The law is designed to promote safety by discouraging individuals from walking out into traffic and potentially causing a wreck or getting hurt.
“They still have a First Amendment right to hold up a sign,” McCracken said. “They just need to know where you are not allowed to do such activities.”
While simply standing on a sidewalk with a sign asking for money or work isn’t considered a criminal offense, being aggressive about it is, McCracken said. And it isn’t exactly easy to tell whether or not an individual panhandler’s need is legitimate. So, McCraken and Hollowell ask the public not give panhandlers money.
“Many panhandlers are not telling you the truth,” Hollowell said.
“Most of the panhandlers I have seen in St. George are already staying at Switchpoint so they don’t need money for food or shelter,” she said. “This practice is highly discouraged at Switchpoint where we really strive to do more than provide a bed and a meal for a night.”
McCracken said the police would rather see money donated to places like Switchpoint than see it given to panhandlers who may not use it as hoped.
When the police come across a panhandler, officers try to find out who the person is, where they are from and what services the community has available that may benefit them.
“The goal is not to get them into trouble,” McCracken said. “The goal is to try and get them the services they need and make sure they don’t run afoul of the law.”
Those who give panhandlers a few bucks here and there may not know there are places like Switchpoint and the Salvation Army in town.
Switchpoint, which opened two years ago, is an emergency shelter that also houses branches of multiple nonprofit and public entities that work together to help those in need ultimately find jobs and housing. Along the way, they help clients get state-issued ID, apply for social security benefits, learn how to build resumes and apply for jobs, among other services.
“Contact dispatch (435-627-4300) and let them know where the individual is and what they look like so they (responders) can stop by and direct them to us,” Hollowell said. “However, for your safety, please do not offer rides to panhandlers in your vehicle.”
Just as the act of panhandling itself is no crime, McCracken said, it also isn’t a crime for someone to fake a need to ask for money in such fashion.
“That’s the problem,” he said “They toy on people’s heartstrings. There’s no crime in ‘Brother, can you spare a dime’ and really not need the dime. This is a reason we want the general public to be aware. … There are a number of services for the people that want them.”
- Switchpoint Community Resource Center | Location: 948 N. 1300 West, St. George | Telephone 435-628-9310 | Website.
- The Salvation Army of Southern Utah | Location: 803 S. Bluff St., St. George | Mail to: P.O. Box 3211, St. George, UT 84771 | Telephone Steve Staneart 435-218-6243 | Email [email protected] | Webpage.
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