Merced police warn panhandlers to stay off medians

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 3, 2014 

— Nora Hart asked strangers for money on Friday in Merced, saying she needed the cash to get to Oakdale to see her aging mother.

“This is just a good spot to fly a sign,” Hart explained while standing on the median island at the intersection of Highway 59 and West 16th Street.

The 53-year-old resident of a homeless encampment near the railroad tracks, said she had been ticketed for standing on private property in the middle of the busy intersection, but that she has few other options to get cash.

“But I just can’t let you stand right here,” Merced police Capt. Tom Trindad replied. “It’s just too dangerous.”

Trindad and other city police officers were out in force Friday morning, issuing warnings to panhandlers standing on medians and freeway on-ramps. It was the first step toward enforcing a new anti-panhandling city ordinance that went into effect New Year’s Day. “The medians are meant for traffic control, they were never intended for pedestrians. It’s just not safe,” Trindad explained.

Preventing people from walking or loitering on median strips in Merced is the focus of the newly minted “Median Island Safety” ordinance, which makes standing on the islands a misdemeanor.

Trindad said he was not aware of any pedestrians or panhandlers being struck by vehicles, but said the new law seeks to prevent that from happening. “I think it’s kind of amazing that it’s never happened, because it’s a predictable problem,” Trindad said. “And, like they say, a predictable problem is a preventable problem.”

Mayor Stan Thurston said he’s heard of several minor vehicle accidents in which motorists had stopped to give money to panhandlers at busy intersections. “While this is aimed at safety first, it’s also intended to slow down panhandling as much as we think is possible,” Thurston said. “If they want to stand on a corner or the sidewalk curb, they’re legally entitled to do that, but standing on the median is not a safe place to be.”

In recent weeks, Merced officials have encouraged residents to avoid giving panhandlers cash and, instead, to hand out cards with information detailing where people in need can find services ranging from food to medical care.

“People can pick up those cards at the Rescue Mission and just about every single business on Main Street,” Thurston said.

Officials are hoping the public will support their efforts to eliminate, or at least reduce, panhandling in Merced, but the effectiveness of the campaign remains to be seen.

Merced’s Thomas Morris was holding a sign asking for help near the Highway 99 on-ramp and 14th and V streets on Friday morning. The 64-year-old said collecting money on the streets has been harder in recent weeks. “I ain’t making no money. Nobody’s got none,” Morris said.

Morris nodded as Trindad explained the new law, and although he said he understood, he seemed frustrated by the news.

“How can homeless pay fines when you have to fight to scrounge for a piece of bread?” he said. “You know I’m just going to come back here when you leave.”

Trindad told Morris he was not being fined, only warned.

“But when I come back through, if you’re back here, I’m going to have to issue a citation,” he explained. “You need to stand someplace that’s safe.”

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

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