The Mobile Police Department (MPD) has made more than 200 arrests for panhandling in the last four months. Advocates say those arrests, which stem from a revised 2010 ordinance, are helping, not hurting, the city’s homeless population.

Police have made 269 arrests of what spokeswoman Charlette Solis called “vagrants” in the last four months. There are 205 of these “vagrants” in a database to allow MPD to track them, she wrote. Solis wrote in an email message that it’s important to distinguish vagrants from the homeless population, noting vagrants tend to have a place to stay, but use the money gathered through panhandling to buy drugs and alcohol.

“Vagrants soak up the city’s resources by begging and stealing but don’t try to better themselves,” she wrote. “Being homeless is different.”   

Housing First Executive Director Eric Jefferson said he has no problem with the city’s law because the majority of panhandlers aren’t homeless. Panhandlers give the community a negative impression of the homeless population.

“The face of homelessness is not the guy panhandling, the face of homelessness is families with children,” he said.

While police have made 196 arrests downtown over the last four months, they made only 41 in the same area from January 2014 to July 2015. During that same period, Solis wrote, police have made 80 arrests for panhandling in other areas of the city, primarily on exit ramps and along the interstates or near business corridors.

To help combat the problem, the MPD recently introduced a program that allows visitors to place loose change in colorfully painted parking meters in the downtown area, rather than give change directly to panhandlers. Three meters were placed in Bienville Square and one in Cathedral Square. So far in 2015, the meters have collected $1,000, Solis wrote.

The money is collected by central parking and given to the Mobile Rescue Mission, Solis wrote. The rescue mission is then responsible for distributing those funds to appropriate agencies. Mobile Rescue Mission could not be reached for comment.

Three new parking meters will be added, Solis noted, but she has no information on when or where.

“It’s important the public be informed that these meters exist,” she wrote. “It serves as a way to eliminate their guilt or intimidation when someone begs for money.”

The meters are part of a program to eliminate public intoxication and lewdness in the downtown area, Lt. Billie Rowland said through Solis.
Rowland also mentioned the city of Pensacola has been in contact with him about starting a similar program there.

Jefferson said the program and the ordinance help the homeless population because when officers come across someone literally homeless, the person is taken to 15 Place where they can get help.

If the individual is sent to 15 Place, Jefferson said, Housing First does an intake assessment to determine who they are, their last address and if they have any health or mental health concerns. The individual is scored on a 0 to 15 scale, he said.

If they score from 0 to 4, 15 Place tells Housing First the person just needs affordable housing. Typically someone with a 0 to 4 score has a way to make income, Jefferson said. A score of 5 to 10 also means the individual has an income, but is in need of rapid rehousing. Jefferson said the need for rapid rehousing could mean the individual got behind on housing or utility payments and may have been evicted. The program, Jefferson said, helps the person get caught up or moved.

A score of 10 to 15 usually means an individual has been homeless perpetually, he said. This could mean the individual needs not only housing but more comprehensive services such as mental health care, job training or placement.

Updated at 1:36 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9 to correct the number of “vagrant” arrests in the last four months. The information was incorrectly provided in an email to Lagniappe.