By Jim Hagerty
They stand on corners holding signs. Sometimes they will approach pedestrians or walk into businesses asking for money. Panhandlers have an array of methods they use to receive handouts.
While Rockford is no exception when it comes to the presence of panhandlers, the practice is being handled with a combined effort between citizens and local police.
“Sometimes I get asked for money five or six times during a six- or eight-hour shift,” said Danielle Hillman of Empirical Tech Works, near the corner of North Main and Mulberry streets. “It’s usually a sob story: they need money to eat, or for medicine.”
Panhandlers who approach Hillman are walking to and from the downtown branch of the Rockford Public Library, she said. While a simple “no” is usually all it takes to get them to move along, they will try to push the envelope and negotiate, something Hillman says she has no time for.
“I just threaten to call the police,” Hillman said. “That usually works.”
Similar incidents have taken place at the corner of West State and Church streets.
“They’ll ask customers for money,” said Bill Donahue, of Downtown Discount Drugs, 325 W. State St. “I just chase them away, but I have called the police on the ones who don’t stop. But they are usually gone by the time the police get here.”
Panhandling is prohibited in Rockford after sunset and before sunrise. During the day, it is not allowed at select locations, including bus stops, public transportation facility, on public streets, near ATMs, nursing homes and assisted-living centers. Panhandling is also prohibited within 20 feet of a church or place of worship.
“Ten years ago, there seemed to be a panhandler every 20 feet,” said Megan Ford, who works the day shift at CJ’s Lounge at State and Madison. “But now, I don’t see it much.”
These days, she says panhandling — and the way she handles it — have a common theme at the popular downtown corner.
“Every once in a while, I’ll get people asking for cigarettes, to use the bathroom or for free water, which we don’t do,” Ford said.
Rockford’s panhandling ordinance was adopted in 2006. Since then, officers have made themselves known to everyday solicitors, who often become familiar parts of the landscape.
“(Panhandlers) know they are breaking the law,” said Crystal Douglas, owner of Wired Café,where bike patrol officers would frequent during their shifts. “When the officers were here, the panhandlers would see them and just turn around.”
Bike patrol units returned to Rockford streets this summer after a two-year hiatus. But they are now assigned to other beats and aren’t on their bikes as much. According to Douglas, the absence has been noticeable. A recent run-in with an unruly panhandler was quelled, but not until she pressed the issue with Rockford police.
“I called three times,” Douglas said. “Finally, I texted an officer friend who was able to get a car over here. We want our bike cops back.”
Whether Douglas will get her wish isn’t known. She’s not alone, though. Donahue also said he wants to see a stronger police presence downtown.
Ald. Karen Elyea, D-11, who also owns Minglewood at 510 E. State St., says she sympathizes with a push for quicker police response, but said crimes like panhandling are not high-alert incidents. Street beggars also come with the territory.
“The police have to prioritize their calls,” Elyea said. “A lot of calls involve physical violence that take priority over panhandling. And this is not any different than being on Michigan Avenue. I was just in Chicago, and I was panhandled. It’s all part of living in the city.”
Rockford Police Assistant Deputy Chief Patrick Hoey agreed.
“I don’t see (panhandling) like I used to,” Hoey said. “It used to be that the panhandlers wouldn’t care if we just gave them a ticket. One of our officers found a statute that prohibits soliciting money on a public roadway and that’s jailable. So, even if they are released right away, they don’t like the inconvenience of being brought to jail.”
And to jail they do go.
Jarrod Hennis, owner of Art Deli downtown, stepped in to assist attendees of this year’s Cook’s Tour who were being bothered by an aggressive panhandler.
“The guy was drunk and was following people who came down for Cook’s Tour — people not familiar with downtown,” he said. “He was touching people and asking for money. There seems to be more vagabond types down here during events.”
Events bring more people, which come with extra cash. Panhandlers are known for working areas with higher concentrations of people and fewer officers, like retail districts south of downtown and the east side near East State Street, Mulford Road and Perryville.
“They’ll get on a bus and go where they know they can get bigger bucks,” Hoey said.
The Rockford Police Department has published a pamphlet called “Don’t Give Where it Won’t Help,” which explains Rockford’s aggressive panhandling ordinance. Available at the City of Rockford website, the pamphlet encourages citizens to support local social service agencies instead of giving handouts to those living on the streets.
No more panhandling — please find another way to give
Presented by the Rockford Police Department
Panhandling is a problem.
Be aware, alert, confident and prepared to act.
• You are entitled to your space and do not have to be intimidated or harassed.
• Do not give money to panhandlers.
• Panhandling for drugs and alcohol is common.
• Acknowledge a panhandler with a nod and answer the request for money by saying “no,” then walk away. Don’t get angry or feel guilty.
• You may also choose not to speak to the panhandler at all, which is OK as long as you have a well-thought-out plan on how you will conduct yourself in maintaining your confidence during this situation.
Some ploys used by panhandlers.
• My wife is sick or pregnant and I need money for …
• I’m out of gas, can you spare some change …
• Can you spare some change for something to eat, I haven’t eaten for days …
Help is there for those who want it.
The City of Rockford and Winnebago County have several agencies and social services who offer assistance to those in need. Many of them accept donations.
Services offered include the following:
• Health Care
Giving money to panhandlers is not the answer.
Please find another way to give.
Keep in Mind …
Do not give money to panhandlers! This will only encourage further behavior. Do not go into your wallet or purse in front of the panhandler.
It is not illegal to ask for money, but it is illegal to aggressively beg or intimidate a passerby, to intentionally touch or cause physical contact, to follow or persist in begging after a negative response has been given or obstruct a pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
Panhandling is prohibited during evening hours after sunset and before sunrise.
Panhandling is prohibited during daylight hours:
• At a bus stop
• In a sidewalk café
• In any public parking garage
• Within 20 feet of an ATM
• Within 20 feet of a church or place of worship
• When panhandlers are in a group of two or more people.
• For further information, see City of Rockford Ordinance Sec. 19-32.
Anyone who feels threatened or intimidated should call the police as soon as possible.
1. Give a description of the panhandler.
2. Location of occurrence.
3. Time of occurrence.
4. Direction of travel.
5. Be willing to assist police with prosecution if necessary.
Non-emergency number: (815) 966-2900
Emergency number: 911
From the Oct. 15-21, 2014, issue