Panhandlers and the law

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A Sutton area attorney on familiar street people in the neighborhood — and what kind of “loitering” is legal


  • Vincent, with a book.

If you regularly pass Dunkin’ Donuts at First Avenue and 56th Street, you will have seen Vincent, 60 years old, British West Indies-born, leaning against the wall or phone booth and reading his latest history or fiction novel, while occasionally glancing up to check you out. He says nothing, but regulars in the area know he is panhandling. Vincent is disabled as a result of spinal surgery in 2014 and he survives on Social Security disability — about $736 a month and the kindness of others, all of whom add perhaps $50 a day to his income.

Vincent proudly says he does not drink, smoke or do drugs and would be working if not for his disability. In fact, he has completed several courses in computer technology, but his surgery adversely affected his ability to use his hands. He hopes when he completes his physical therapy, probably in September, he will improve enough to get off the street and into a job.

A resident of Queens who lives alone, Vincent convinced his landlord to reduce his rent to $650 a month. He has two daughters and has never been married. In the old days he worked on an off-shore rig. He is an avid reader and his book is not merely a tax-deductible occupational device to create an impression. We noticed a small refrigerator on a dolly near where Vincent was doing his thing and asked him if he really brought a portable appliance with him to keep his food cold. With a smile, he assured us it was not his refrigerator. Vincent has had no problems with the law.

Ray, on the other hand, another panhandler who occupies the same corner when Vincent is not there, has been arrested four times but never convicted. Ray is considerably more verbally aggressive than Vincent, which no doubt may account for his arrests. “Help a guy out!” Ray will shout as you pass. He said the cops exaggerated his aggressiveness at the time of his arrests.

Ray is 65 and lives in a shelter in Brooklyn, assigned to a room with three other men among four beds with no partitions. According to Councilman Ben Kallos, many street denizens (he does not refer to them as the homeless because many have homes) refuse to go to shelters for fear they will be victims of crime. Ray is not afraid to go to a shelter because, he says, he knows his way around.

With little education, Ray came as a young man to the United States from the Virgin Islands in 1975. He is technically married and has a 31-year-old son and two grandchildren in New Jersey, but has little to do with his family.

Ray and Vincent have an unspoken agreement: the first guy at the corner has priority and the other goes elsewhere. They agreed that on a normal day, working four to six hours, the take is anywhere from $30 to $50 (Christmas Day can bring in $400). Ray, too, receives Social Security disability. Ray does not show an obvious physical disability but assured us he cannot work. He is annoyed when people tell him to get a job, while refusing to give him money. Ray worked as a bricklayer prior to becoming disabled. He explained that he chose to work that particular corner because of its proximity to one of the largest residential building in our area — a building which has many residents who treat him well.

Linda, an apparently quiet woman (rumor has it she can become verbally aggressive when provoked) can be seen in almost all weather, bent over her shopping cart between Tal Bagel and a candy store on First near 54th. She will ask for money in a voice barely above a whisper. Linda refused to let us interview her or take her picture, so we learned little about her.

Vincent, Ray and Linda violate no law when they “loiter” and ask for money. It’s when begging gets aggressive that the line is crossed. Deputy Inspector Clint McPherson, former commanding officer of our 17th Precinct, while boasting that our precinct is 70th out of 77 in reducing crime, indicated our street people cause little crime and most criminal activity in our area is from people coming here from the outside. Lieutenant William Gallagher, attorney and legal advisor to the NYPD, explained in a recent address to the 17th Precinct Community Council that the loitering statute prohibiting loitering and panhandling, as such, was declared unconstitutional 10 years ago by New York’s highest court. However, when panhandling is coupled with following you, touching you or blocking you or traffic, it is illegal activity.

We may not like to see street people and be reminded of the misfortune of others, and we may feel uncomfortable refusing the entreaties of the poor, but as long as panhandlers exercise restraint, they have the right to solicit on our sidewalks. The United States Constitution, in guaranteeing their freedom and ours, does not guarantee freedom from all unpleasant behavior. We in the Sutton Place area are fortunate that the inconvenience and discomfort we may experience is a minimal inconvenience, compared with what could be the result of draconian rules restricting our and others’ day-to-day life.

Excerpted from an article by Bernard Dworkin, Esq., counsel to, and former president of Sutton Area Community

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