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Owensboro and Elizabethtown Tackling Issue of Panhandling Through Information

Elizabethtown Police Department

It’s an increasingly familiar sight at busy intersections and shopping center entryways. A person or persons positioned on the side of the road often displaying a handmade sign asking for money or food. 

Begging for money or goods in a public space is legal in Kentucky. A 2017 state Supreme Court ruling declared that panhandling is free speech protected by the First Amendment. With enforcement powers stripped, authorities are left to manage the public safety hazard created by panhandlers and well-meaning citizens.

While panhandling is not against the law in Kentucky, panhandlers and well-intentioned citizens can pose a public safety hazard in the state’s roadways.

“It can be extremely dangerous not only for vehicular traffic you know someone stopping for instance to hand money to somebody who’s panhandling and possibly getting involved in an accident but there have also been multiple instances where somebody that’s out panhandling actually gets struck by a vehicle,” said Officer Andrew Boggess, the Public Information Officer with the Owensboro Police Department.

“So, it’s actually much more than a safety concern for us than anything to do with a First Amendment free speech claim.”

To combat the problem, the Owensboro Police Department has launched a massive educational campaign discouraging people from giving to panhandlers and encouraging more targeted giving.

“Hopefully, educating the public and getting the proper information out there where people can donate to the correct causes can help to reduce it,” Boggess said. “I’ve had instances of where I’ve encountered somebody that’s out there panhandling and they will literally have a backpack full of food that they’re basically throwing away, even though it’s well-intended, a lot of times doing something like that with the right intention actually can backfire.  The money can go a lot further if it’s given to a legitimate organization that’s going to make sure it’s utilized to the fullest extent.”

Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, and Lexington are using signs to educate citizens about panhandling. Officer John Thomas, the Public Information Officer with the Elizabethtown Police Department, said his city partnered with the United Way on their signage.

“They say, ‘Keep the change. Don’t support panhandling.’ And then there is a link at the bottom that says, ‘Go to’, which is a webpage managed by United Way and encourages people to give to vetted sources such as United Way,” Thomas explained.

When you give to a panhandler you don’t know what you are giving to, you don’t know if you are enabling an addiction for example, you don’t know if you are supporting someone who is simply taking advantage of others generosity.  We’re just telling people you really can’t know.”

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