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Panhandling a growing issue on Grand Island

More shoppers and business owners have complained in recent months about people begging for money in two large shopping plazas on Grand Island.

That's left town officials struggling to balance the constitutional rights of panhandlers with safety concerns of customers and store employees.

Grand Island does not have a panhandling law, but owners do have the right to bar solicitation on their properties. Town police and sheriff's deputies who patrol the island haven't made any arrests yet, but aggressive panhandlers could be charged with harassment.

"We have to be cognizant of everyone's rights," Councilman Peter Marston Jr. said at a recent Town Board work session.

Town officials say they don't want to act heavy-handed in responding and they recognize the financial and other challenges likely facing the panhandlers. They say they haven't received reports of violence by the panhandlers, and most are polite in requesting money.

But they want to make sure people using the plazas are comfortable.

"It's private property, but if somebody is feeling harassed or threatened in any way they should immediately call the police," former Supervisor Nate McMurray said in an interview.

Town officials, police and business owners say the panhandling complaints focus on the busy Tops Markets and Grand Island plazas along Grand Island Boulevard, to the north and south of Whitehaven Road in the island's center.

The Tops plaza has a Dollar Tree, Advance Auto Parts and several smaller shops. The Grand Island Plaza has an M&T Bank and Dollar General, among other storefronts.

The complaints appear to have gone up in the past few months, though town and police officials did not provide statistics.

Observers say as few as two and as many as four or five people are the main panhandlers in the shopping centers.

"There's been a lot of complaints," Marston said during the work session. "There's a lot of people who are uneasy about what's happening."

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A recent afternoon visit to the Tops plaza didn't find any obvious panhandling.

In interviews, shop employees and customers had a range of views on the issue. Some said they had seen people asking for money, or been asked themselves, but it didn't bother them.

Others said they saw more concerning behavior and they had reported it to the town's part-time police department.

Leonard Bauer, owner of the Just Pizza franchise in the plaza, said some of the panhandlers are more aggressive than others.

"When someone pulls into the parking lot, they get there before the door opens," Bauer said in between pulling pies out of the oven. He said he will ask panhandlers to move along if they are standing too close to his entrance and bothering his customers.

He said he's been in that location 13 years and this is the first year panhandling has been a problem.

Sam Aceti, owner of Aceti's Wine and Spirits, said customers haven't complained about panhandling.

"It's not a problem now," he said.

"I haven't noticed anything," said Noelle Shantler, general manager of Soma Cura Wellness Center.

But at the Supercuts salon, stylist Sylvia Opper said someone recently came into the shop and started asking customers in the waiting area for money.

"She was only in here for about a minute," said Opper, who was working alone at the time.

A customer in the shop added that she was approached a month or so ago outside Dollar General by a very thin woman who wasn't dressed for the cold weather.

"I gave her, like, $5 worth of change," said Lisa Kaufman, an island resident. The woman was, Kaufman said, "Unbelievably thankful. 'Thank you, mama.' "

At the Tops Markets, the store manager will call police when customers bring up a concern about being approached, and the store encourages anyone who feels uncomfortable to ask at the customer service desk for an escort to their car, company spokeswoman Kathy Sautter said.

The manager "has seen an uptick in panhandling in that parking lot in the past six months," Sautter said.

Town Board members discussed the spate of complaints at a session that preceded a full board meeting in early December. Board members said the issue raises knotty legal questions for the town. People have a free speech right to panhandle, federal courts have ruled.

"You can ask anybody for money – that's not against the law," Robert Rine, the officer in charge of the town's police department, said in an interview.

Some towns and cities have approved panhandling laws, but some of those have been struck down as unconstitutional. The City of Buffalo, for example, has a law defining "aggressive" panhandling that also establishes areas, such as near ATMs, where begging for money is not allowed.

Grand Island does not have a panhandling law. People could be cited or arrested for violating laws against harassment or disorderly conduct, though trespassing is a difficult charge to bring, Rine said.

The businesses in the two plazas lease their space from the plaza owners. The businesses can ban soliciting in their stores but it's up to the owners – Benderson Development Co. for the Tops plaza and an Arizona developer for the Grand Island Plaza – to set overall, enforceable policies for the plazas.

"It's a very gray area," McMurray said at the work session, adding, "We cannot go into private property and take people off private property unless a crime's being committed."

The town has been cautious in addressing the panhandlers. It's possible they are dealing with mental health and addiction issues in addition to economic and housing instability, officials said.

Observers said they believe the panhandlers are people without homes placed in hotels on the island by social services agencies, although that couldn't be confirmed.

There is another issue residents were reluctant to talk about: The panhandlers described in complaints primarily were black, while island residents are predominantly white, and it's not known whether this is driving the discomfort of some shoppers and employees.

Town police haven't arrested anyone in response to the complaints.

Councilwoman Jennifer Baney said she hasn't heard of any cases of serious threats or violence committed by panhandlers.

She said she's heard more complaints in recent months but she knows panhandling can be more common during the holiday season when families feel particularly pressed for money.

"At this time of year I would just encourage residents to balance safety with generosity," Baney said in an interview, "and handle the situation as they see fit."

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