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Local panhandling concerns resurface in Fairview Heights

Individuals like this panhandling at the intersection of Illinois Route 159 and Lincoln Trail/Lincoln Highway in Fairview Heights have been causing great concern for nearly two years. (Submitted photo)

 

By RANDY PIERCE
tribune@heraldpubs.com

Faced with concerns from local residents about individuals seeking monetary support by standing in highly visible locations at the intersection of Illinois Route 159 and Lincoln Highway/Lincoln Trail in Fairview Heights, Mayor Mark Kupsky suggests a practical solution for those who object to this – don’t give to them and they’ll go away.

More than once in recent years, the mayor has fielded comments and questions from citizens about the presence of people who are referred to as “panhandlers” at the busiest corner in the community and each time, his response has been to share in the frustration of those expressing objections while also offering there is little to nothing that can be done legally to prevent this from occurring.

Speaking to the Fairview Heights City Council during the “public participation” segment of its meeting on Tuesday, February 20, was local resident Shawn Hearn who said he is a United Parcel Service driver who frequently passes through the aforementioned busy intersection and considers people standing on the concrete median there to be a dangerous practice, detailing his actions like how he has to be alert and careful concerning the possibility of other motorists running red lights, with the panhandlers presenting a serious distraction for all drivers and even blocking visibility at times.

Saying this is a safety issue, Hearn told the council, “Something needs to be done…to protect us” from the existence of the hazardous conditions that exist as he was referencing.

At an earlier recent meeting of the city council, also under “public participation” where those in attendance or observing online can address the local elected officials, Thomas Kolosieke, along with commenting about matters related to the area of town where he resides, said he felt the panhandlers were distracting and creating a dangerous situation while standing, most often with a sign or signs of some sort, where they can be seen by drivers in the busy traffic.

Kupsky, who has heard such remarks often enough that he would diligently pursue a resolution if he had the power to do so, responded to Kolosieke and similarly to Hearn, “There’s not much we can do” because of a ruling by the federal Supreme Court which prohibits any local laws or actions to keep people from “panhandling” like this as long as they, in the case of Fairview Heights, remain off the pavement used by vehicles, unless crossing the street, and therefore are permitted to stand on the concrete median dividing the lanes of traffic.

Fairview Heights Police do often converse with the individuals they encounter in such circumstances, Kupsky said, making sure the panhandlers are aware of the restrictions concerning where they can stand or sit.

There have been instances where some people, Kupsky noted, as he had in prior conversations with the public about this matter, panhandling are “not doing it because they are in need. Someone drops them off, they collect money, then they are picked up and split the money.”

There are those suffering from mental illnesses engaging in panhandling which Kupsky described as “the most difficult thing with deal with” when it comes to confronting this issue, making a reference to a recollection he had about an older female who is now deceased and used to push a “baby buggy” around the city, especially in the 1990s, because she chose that as the life she wanted to live and did not aggressively solicit donations from others.

When asked by Kolosieke if the city could put up a sign about panhandling at the busy intersection, the mayor responded that Route 159 is a state highway totally under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Transportation, leaving the local government with no authority to do as the resident inquired.

“The one thing that really angers the mayor the most,” Kupsky continued, “is the people that use their children, family,” to attract attention with the intent of having others give them money.

Kupsky related to Hearn about the mayor’s awareness of individuals collecting donations this way getting into “a luxury car” after a period of panhandling and another situation where a man appeared to have a physical deformity that caused him to be hunched over while standing in the median but later was observed “standing upright.”

“The best thing I can say to do is spread the word,” he added, that “you give to them, they’re going to continue to come.”

The role of the police department is not just punitive or advisory, according to Kupsky, as its officers will make the effort to connect those truly in need with local area groups such as a ministerial alliance or other charitable agencies which can provide assistance in finding suitable housing or food.

Kupsky assured Kolosieke and Hearn that the city is continuing to consider what options might exist for addressing panhandling in the community, particularly from the standpoint of public safety at the “busiest intersection south of Chicago” in Illinois.

Back in 2022, it was reported locally that Fairview Heights Police tried to work with the Illinois Department of Transportation to put some plastic/Plexiglass-like stanchions in the medians along Illinois Route 159 so that there would be no place for people to stand but the state agency will not allow it.

The rulings at the level of the highest court in the nation as referred to by Kupsky essentially accelerated in 2015 when a decision was handed down determining that the Town of Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of the state capital of Phoenix, could not restrict the content on signs created by businesses or individuals,  interpreting this as a “freedom of speech” matter in what the legal profession has considered a “landmark” case concerning this topic.

In general terms, the Gilbert, Arizona United States Supreme Court ruling clarified that the regulation of “speech” by a government unit at any level based on its subject matter or purpose is an unconstitutional practice, thusly leading to the prohibiting laws against panhandling.

The Gilbert situation led to the high court’s application of its outcome to other similar circumstances including in the community of Worcester, Massachusetts and subsequent cases, which were more directly related to the concept of panhandling, and, as cited in one prevailing judicial opinion, defined such solicitation as necessary for the individuals involved to utilize as a means of ensuring their well-being and survival.

Among the multitude of statements made concerning such matters, one related to a similar set of circumstances in the municipality of Schaumburg in northeast Illinois, saw Diane O’Connell, identified as a community lawyer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, successfully arguing, “No one should face arrest because they ask for help.”

In November of last year when Kupsky addressed the graduates of the Fairview Heights Police Department Senior Academy, he echoed the same sentiments and feelings about panhandlers as he expressed when responding to Kolosieke and Hearn.

After commenting, “The mayor does not like that,” Kupsky said to that group, “There’s nothing we can do. They’re protected by some supreme court ruling and freedom of speech.”

“The best thing we can do is not to give to them and I’ll just tell you this—even though a lot of them look in need, the ones out there are generally not in need and they do it to get tax-free money.”

“A lot of times they walk off and get in a really nice car or there’s a group that drops them off and picks them up at the end of the day.”

Kupsky added that he is asked often why the city allows people to do this but the answer he has no choice but to give is always the same as shared herein.

These types of complaints from residents and visitors to the city are by no means new as it seems once the effects of the coronavirus pandemic began to subside, people showing up at the intersection of Illinois Route 159 and Lincoln Trail/Lincoln Highway, which is defined as public (not private) property, became a more common occurrence.

Fairview Heights Police Department Captain Charles “CJ” Beyersdorfer had addressed the city’s business alliance commission in 2022 with essentially the same message as that shared by the mayor more recently.

At that time Beyersdorfer said the police department, the city attorney, mayor and an organization of police chiefs were researching possibilities for addressing this situation while still staying within the limitations of Supreme Court rulings.

Beyersdorfer further echoed the mayor’s feelings by commenting, “If people would not give them money, you would not have this. It would go away, and they would go somewhere else.”

3 Comments

  1. Dianna Western on February 24, 2024 at 11:19 am

    take the concrete in the middle out and make tirn lanes they would have no place to stand. make it a law in your city that panhandlers are not aloud and arrest them.

  2. Dianna Western on February 24, 2024 at 11:22 am

    take the concrete in the middle of and make it a turn lane it would have no place to stand
    Make it a law where they cannot panhandle.

    • Pat Baeske on February 25, 2024 at 10:37 am

      The intersection is Illinois State property so the city has no control and cannot do as you suggest.

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