COOKEVILLE, TN (WSMV) – The City of Cookeville began installing signages at locations most frequented by panhandlers in an effort to discourage motorists from giving cash, the city announced in a news release.
“While we want to help those in need, the act of giving cash to panhandlers encourages an undesirable and dangerous situation,” the news release stated. “We strongly encourage those that want to give to do so by supporting local charitable and other organizations whose missions are to help those less fortunate.”
The city said panhandling and homelessness continue to be a growing issue in Cookeville and across the country. According to the release, the city council, city administration and police department receive complaints on a frequent basis. The release states that oftentimes it’s an assumption that the city is doing nothing to address the problem.
“It should be stressed that panhandling and being homeless are not in themselves crimes. Several of these individuals are in the position they are due to no fault of their own,” the release stated. “There are numerous programs available to assist those in need and the City has taken several steps to facilitate access to available resources.”
The city entered into an agreement for services in September 2020 with the Upper Cumberland Human Resources Agency’s Substance Abuse Solutions program to establish a social work and police partnership (SWAPP). Through this agreement UCHRA was able to hire an additional employee whose primary responsibility is to reach those in Cookeville in need of social services, this includes housing support, counseling and medical/mental health care. The City Council supports renewing the agreement for another year.
A total of 201 individuals in the city have been provided some type of assistance through the SAS program over the last 10 months. At initial contact, 196 SAS clients indicated that they were homeless. Some of the more frequent forms of assistance provided include peer support (welfare checks), the provision of basic needs such as food and clothing, transportation assistance and emergency housing. SAS personnel have assisted the Cookeville Police Department with 129 calls for service ranging from mental health crises and domestic violence to overdoses.
In addition to the SAS program, Cookeville has allocated funding for various other programs to help those in need. In 2020, Cookeville purchased and donated 24 beds and mattresses to the Cookeville Rescue Mission. For the past several years the city has provided funding assistance to Helping Hands and for the PATH Program at Plateau Mental Health Center.
“Unfortunately, according to personnel with SAS, a significant portion of the homeless and those panhandling here in our City do not want and simply will not accept assistance,” the city stated in the release. “Some appear to have adopted this as a preferred lifestyle. SAS personnel indicate that many of their clients have addiction and/or mental health issues.”
According to the city, there are few legal options to prohibit panhandling. Cities are allowed only to enforce laws granted by the federal and state governments. The First Amendment affords an individual the right to stand on public property and solicit. However, aggressive panhandling is a Class C misdemeanor. Aggressive panhandling includes touching someone without their consent, obstructing a vehicle or someone’s path, following someone, and/or making a threatening statement or gesture. The city cannot arrest or remove someone from standing adjacent to a public street panhandling and, unless the property owner is willing to charge an individual with trespass, a person cannot be arrested for panhandling or camping on private property.
Last year the Cookeville City Council considered an ordinance to regulate panhandling within the public right-of-way with the goal of improving the safety of pedestrians and motorists after an individual panhandling in a nearby city had been struck and killed. The ordinance was not approved after a public hearing where several citizens spoke against the regulations along with concerns expressed from city attorneys that the ordinance may be unconstitutional.
The city pursued legislation at the state level to provide some authority for local governments to regulate camping and panhandling on public property. The measure passed in the State House but failed in the Senate.
Since January 2020, Cookeville Police have arrested individuals listed as homeless 176 times. In the past three months, 65 homeless people have been arrested. The most common offense is public intoxication followed by shoplifting, trespassing and simple possession. Police have responded to 363 calls for service referencing “homeless” in 2020. So far in 2021 police have responded to 332 such calls. The most common calls are for suspicious persons, trespassing, welfare checks and investigations.
“With the realization that the past year has been incredibly difficult for many, we are hopeful that our rebounding economy will provide opportunities and employment rather than resulting in the choice to panhandle,” the city stated in the release. “One of the positive attributes of this community is the caring and giving nature of our residents. We again encourage those that want to assist to do so by choosing to give to the many local organizations that can and do provide the valuable social services to those in need.
“The City Council and City Staff share the public’s frustration and concern regarding panhandling and homelessness and will continue to do what is legally possible to address the issue. We will also keep searching for methods and approaches to assist those in need and are open to suggestions for how to best do so.”
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