To hear some Santa Feans tell it, panhandling is running amok in the City Different.
“This panhandling mafia thing has gotten out of control,” Ben Phillips wrote in a Facebook post on the widely read Santa Fe Bulletin Board that has generated more than 600 comments, many from frustrated city residents. “These panhandlers … make a killing here daily from the kindness of our city and so the word has spread and groups are trying to control it all.”
Phillips’ Oct. 2 post, which included a video of panhandlers arguing over a street corner in Santa Fe, triggered a community discussion that, a week later, is still sparking dialogue and debate. But the public outcry is unlikely to spur any major policy change from city officials, who note panhandling isn’t a crime — not to mention that a city ordinance that prohibited certain types of panhandling is no longer being enforced after a court ruled a similar law in Albuquerque violated free speech protections.
City officials also said they have no evidence that panhandling is out of control.
The post by Phillips, who could not be reached for comment, also made unsubstantiated claims that panhandlers are traveling from Albuquerque by train each morning to beg for money in Santa Fe, an assertion some residents and city officials have also heard but can’t prove.
“I’m glad somebody else posted this about these panhandlers coming up here to Santa Fe on the train from Albuquerque,” Rebecca Alexander wrote. “I [watched] this one day as they gathered at the Walgreens parking lot catty corner to the train in Santa Fe passing out the signs to all their people and then sending them around to different corners.”
City spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said Wednesday she couldn’t comment on whether out-of-town panhandlers are setting their sights on Santa Fe.
“We haven’t investigated it,” she said. “What would be the complaint?”
Police spokesman Greg Gurulé said the police department has “no knowledge of any panhandlers coming up from Albuquerque.”
Chacon and other city officials said they don’t know whether panhandling is on the rise, but the number of complaints hasn’t gone up. They did agree, though, that panhandling isn’t a crime.
“Panhandling in and of itself is not a criminal act,” Chacon said. “If it’s accompanied by criminal activity such as harassment, trespassing, darting in and out of traffic and creating a safety hazard, then it is appropriate for police … to intervene.”
In 2010, the city outlawed “aggressive” panhandling by people who block sidewalks, use foul language or touch the people they are soliciting. The ordinance also prohibited begging from traffic medians or near automatic teller machines, bus stops and parking lots. In 2017, a couple of city councilors forwarded a ban on panhandling within 20 feet of any business, but the proposal was short-lived.
“This is something that communities all across the country have wrestled with, and they’ve tried to create laws that prohibit panhandling or limit where they can solicit donations,” Chacon said. “In place after place, these laws are stricken down because it’s a First Amendment right, it’s a free speech right, unless there’s another criminal behavior associated with it.”
Last year, the city suspended enforcement of its panhandling ordinance after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said it violated people’s freedom of speech and discriminated against the poor.
“Laws that criminalize people simply for being poor or homeless don’t belong on the books anywhere in our state,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said after the organization launched an effort to do away with panhandling bans in Santa Fe and nine other towns and cities in the state.
“Our communities should focus their efforts on tackling the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness, not criminalizing the symptoms,” Simonson added.
Gurulé echoed the city’s stance that panhandling isn’t a crime. He also said the police department doesn’t have a count on the number of panhandlers, “nor do we plan to do one.”
“We do not track panhandlers in Santa Fe,” Gurulé wrote in an email. “It’s their First Amendment right to panhandle.”
But on social media, city residents say panhandling has gotten out of hand.
“The panhandlers are becoming much more aggressive and dangerous,” Marja Springer-van Den Broek wrote on Facebook. “We should have laws prohibiting this behavior. It may be protected under ‘free speech’ but what about our rights to a safe environment?”
Francine Wunk said Santa Fe seems to be experiencing a surge of panhandlers.
“Have lived here for years and it was never like this and now most street corners are filled with panhandlers,” Wunk wrote. “I see no real solution unless we, as a city, stop giving money to any of them, as some have suggested. I do feel that there was a time when people begged for money because they needed to and yet now it feels that they just beg because they can and it seems like it’s a scam.”
Residents’ concerns come as the administration of Mayor Alan Webber prepares to roll out a new program that would put homeless people and panhandlers to work cleaning weeds, picking up trash and multiple other tasks.
The proposed Better Way Van Program, modeled after a similar but now defunct program in Albuquerque, started last year as a pilot project under the city Community Services Department. The latest initiative would include funding and participation from Santa Fe’s Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments.
City Councilor Renee Villarreal, who was part of a task force that recommended the Better Way Van Program for Santa Fe, called it a “start” to deal with panhandling. But she said there are likely “other techniques” other cities use to tackle panhandling and homelessness that Santa Fe could emulate.
“We have nonprofit partners in the community that are working toward this end and supporting people experiencing homelessness,” said Villarreal, who represents the downtown business district. “To give to those entities and community partners is probably a better way to deal with the source of the issue versus being reactionary.”
On the Facebook post that generated more than 600 comments, residents also encouraged each other to stop giving panhandlers money.
“As long as people hand them money, they will be there. Stop giving cash to these guys!” Rachael Hemann wrote in the Facebook thread. “If you want to help, donate to the local shelters.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.