Panhandling deluge in Santa Fe? City officials say no

Angel Cordova of Las Cruces tries to collect money to get back home at Zafarano Drive and Rodeo Road on Wednesday. ‘I never though I’d be in this situation,’ said Cordova as he wiped away tears. ‘I have a home. I’m just trying to get home.’ Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

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.

(17) comments

Meredith Madri

I wonder if the City Councilors have spent any time driving around the city lately. I'm not sure how you can deny there is a problem. It seems to me that there has definitely been a recent increase in the number of panhandlers at busy intersections, and yes, some of them do appear to be working together in large groups.

Eslee Kessler

I have given money in the past but also been asked as I was walking in the downtown area. I would like to have a list of shelters and food programs available to these people published by the city. then we could handout information instead of money if people really need support.

Richard Reinders

They make a lot of money panhandling. I saw a special in Denver on the panhandlers back when journalist did investigations and they stayed in nice hotels, had Iphones and ate at what ever restaurant they wanted. Look how they are dressed most wearing nice clean cloths, Timbeland boots , Northface jackets, under armor shirts. I am not saying everyone but most of them some have mental issues and the state should be dealing with them, the rest should be run off the medians.

Eric Sofield

Once I almost hit one of the individuals who fell off the median into the path of my car. If I did not swerve out of the way I would have hit him in the head with my front bumper. Scared me and him I'm sure. Lets help our bothers & sisters on the streets and solve this challenge together somehow. Saying their is not a problem is a mistake.

Richard Jacob

the assertion that they are networking in groups I think is way over-blown .. some are coming down from Abq. on the train and however else .. I'm around everywhere a lot - MANY of these people are totally new faces to me .. BUT I can ALSO attest to the fact (kinda to my amazement) that there are quite a few local marginal people that I've been acquaintances with for years and years (from free eating places and where else) who I now see flying signs on street meridians WHO NEVER DID BEFORE ! .. and I know some of these people get monthly checks .. it's like these poor locals have taken note from the newcomers ! .. I don't mean to come across as a know-it-all but many people's ensuing remarks on this are RIFE with mis-information and mixed-truths .

Angela Grady

Intersections are for driving and stopping, sometimes walking across. These people and their signs are a distraction.

John Puerner

In some cities panhandling Mafias have been liked to human trafficking. Maybe SFPD should look into this.


KT Rivera

I agree that someone needs to look into the 'organization' of these individuals. Something seems fishy that they are regularly dropped off and/or switched out by someone in a vehicle. Who is running this ring? Are these folks really 'free' ?

David Martinez

What bothers me about the panhandlers is that some keep a dog on the median, it's just a matter of time before one gets loose and gets hit by a car.

Robby Roquemore

Not trying to fall into the realm of complete negativity but the penmanship of the signage is pretty pretty pretty good...

Carolyn Cerf

It is quite nice. Is that an issue of some sort?

Khal Spencer

I don't recall ever seeing this many people begging in the streets. Rather than grump and moan about the number of panhandlers, perhaps we should worry about why we are becoming even more of a nation of extreme haves and have nots. I hope the Mayor's program is helpful.

Stefanie Beninato

I guess that means that those holding political signs can now be in medians. It used to be only newspaper vendors had that First Amendment right. And I have been told by a panhandler that "his girlfriend told him to get a job so he decided to come up to Santa Fe from ABQ by train and panhandle here. Real story.

Richard Reinders

This is just the start of what happened in Seattle soon there will be tents on the sidewalks, Seattle finally started handing out bus tickets to rid the city of them if you encourage it , they will come and keep coming. Watch we have an opportunity to get in front of the problem, contact your city council person

Elizabeth Pettus

I don’t think that there are more on my general routes of travel. It may depend on where one lives/drives. An awfully large number seem to be mentally ill, where compassion is imperative, and the remedy is not going to be just giving them a job, one supposes.

J. Beatty

There's no question that there are more people out there panhandling. If you don't want to give them money, then don't give them money. If you think it's profitable for people to stand on a street corner for several hours at a time in all kinds of weather holding up a sign, then by all means quit your job and go for it.

D Moran

Will Santa Fe's Public Works and Parks & Rec attract workers with their generous minimum wage?

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