Elected officials, law enforcement, business owners, residents and advocates gathered last week at a Lark Street bar to discuss the interconnected issues of homelessness, mental health and addiction and their impact on the Lark Street corridor.
The meeting was convened by Jason Pierce, owner of the Savoy Taproom at 301 Lark St., after several altercations between bar patrons and homeless or mentally ill individuals.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan noted that these were complex issues, adding that there are “many faces of homelessness…a child who came out to parents, someone struggling with addiction, someone who’s been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous landlord.”
Sheehan said aggressive panhandling by a few members of this population takes a toll on the quality of life. “We know there are many people who live in this neighborhood who are disproportionately impacted,” she added.
“What if someone came after you with a 2×4?” a man shouted early into the meeting.
Sheehan replied: “It’s helpful if we can all have information…people in this room have ideas and have resources and have the ability to help us work together, so that we can make sure that our communities are safe. Everyone deserves to be safe.”
Not a new problem
This particular forum was the outcome of a discussion on aggressive panhandling at a meeting of the Lark Street Business Improvement District (BID) board in February 2019. But this is hardly a new problem for Albany.
In late July 1993, Albany police began a crackdown on panhandling on Lark Street and lower Central Avenue, and, according to law enforcement officials, arrested six men on charges of begging in public.
Two days later, however, the police suspended this effort when a Federal court upheld a decision that struck down New York’s earlier ban on all “public begging.”
As City Hall and the police department worked to develop guidelines to regulate panhandling, local business owners took matters into their own hands. Tom Rowland, president of the Lark Street Merchants Association – the predecessor of the Lark Street BID – developed an alternative to help those in need.
In late October 1993, Albany Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III, merchants, nonprofits and neighborhood associations unveiled “Albany Hands.” Instead of giving money to panhandlers, downtown residents and visitors were asked to drop their contributions in canisters in some 150 locations, with the proceeds going to support services and outreach.
Just two years later, however, in August 1995, Albany Hands was in trouble after failing to receive anticipated funding from the Community Development Block Grant program.
So now, more than two decades later, what are our options?
Two of the speakers at the forum represented organizations that serve members of the community who are homeless or face mental health issues.
Liz Hitt, executive director of HATAS, the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, which provides shelter, food and clothing in addition to addressing long-term needs for affordable housing and sustainable employment, participated on the panel.
Also present was Tanya Stevens, who spoke from the audience about the Mental Health Empowerment Project. She said that too often, organizations like hers “get called once crisis hits – we call the police, we call Interfaith (Partnership for the Homeless) because there’s a problem.”
A better approach, Stevens said, would be to engage organizations like hers early on in the process to “collectively, pre-emptively, take care of some of the problems.”
The Albany County Department of Mental Health also provides a Mobile Crisis Unit available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call (518) 549-6500.
Working Together to Halt Aggressive Panhandling
The code of the City of Albany has a Prohibition Against Certain Forms of Aggressive Solicitation. But, practically speaking, what should you do if you are approached by an aggressive panhandler?
If you feel safe: if the person is asking for money for food – offer to buy them food. If the person is asking for money for bus fare – offer to pay it for them. If the person seems to be having a substance abuse or mental health issue, call the Albany County Mobile Crisis Unit at (518) 549-6500.
If you do not feel safe: call the Albany Police or dial 911. The Albany Police Department has adopted the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a community-based approach to addressing those involved in the criminal justice system because of addiction, mental illness, and poverty. The police can help the person get the help they need.
The Lark Street BID even has a colorfully painted “parking meter” outside its office where you can make donations to help the less fortunate.
As long as people are giving money to them, panhandlers are going to continue to ask. Please think twice about whether your handout is really helping. Together, residents, visitors and business owners can invest in the Lark Street area and make it a more welcoming place to live, dine and shop.