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Parkersburg panhandling signs spark controversy

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins A man who identified himself as Jimmy stands beneath a sign recently put up by Parkersburg workers at Sixth and Ann streets to discourage panhandling. Jimmy said Tuesday he feels the sign unfairly portrays all homeless individuals as drug addicts and alcoholics.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins
A man who identified himself as Jimmy stands beneath a sign recently put up by Parkersburg workers at Sixth and Ann streets to discourage panhandling. Jimmy said Tuesday he feels the sign unfairly portrays all homeless individuals as drug addicts and alcoholics.

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — While efforts are under way to settle a lawsuit over a previous panhandling ordinance, Mayor Bob Newell is initiating new proposals to discourage the practice in Parkersburg.

Last week, the mayor had signs placed at the railroad trestle at Sixth and Ann streets, the island at the Memorial Bridge approach and near Wal-mart in south Parkersburg reading: “Please do not contribute to the drug & alcohol problem by giving to panhandlers.”

Newell said he has also instructed the Parkersburg Police Department to cite motorists who hold up traffic while giving money to panhandlers when the traffic light is green and he’s looking for council sponsors for a new ordinance that would fine people who engage in aggressive solicitation tactics.

“We get complaints that (people are) intimidated. We have to do something,” Newell said.

The signs were posted Friday “in response to a bunch of people jumping out in the middle of the intersection at Camden and Division Street with buckets and pecking on people’s windows,” the mayor said.

People are frequently seen holding signs asking for money or help in general at the locations where the signs were posted. Newell said if problems continue at Camden and Division or other locations, the signs – which were made in-house – will be placed there too.

Newell said he doesn’t expect the signs to stop all people from giving money to panhandlers.

“Most of that money doesn’t go where people think it does,” Newell said. “People have no idea how much of that goes to drugs and alcohol.”

A man who only gave his name as Jimmy was standing under one of the signs Tuesday evening, holding a piece of cardboard on which was written, “Homeless In Need.”

“I think that’s discrimination,” he said, pointing at the city’s sign. “They’re calling us drug (addicts) and alcoholics.”

Jimmy said he doesn’t do drugs.

“Yeah, I might drink a beer here and there, but just ’cause you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t need other things,” he said.

Jimmy pointed out that his sign doesn’t ask for money, but if someone offers, he would accept. He could also use food and items to keep warm in the coming winter months.

On social media, some people have praised the signs, while others have criticized them as unfair.

In an interview, Marietta resident Mark Wurtzbacher, who drives through Parkersburg to work, said he was disappointed to see the signs.

“I don’t like anything where you stereotype a whole bunch of people like that,” he said. “I know how I’d feel if I was visiting a city and saw a sign like that. I would not feel that it’s a very welcoming or friendly town.”

Newell said he doesn’t think all homeless people are alcoholics or drug abusers, but added, “there’s a dozen or more resources out here for people who are truly in need.”

Greg Smith, president of the Latrobe Street Mission board, agreed.

“I think that if you are providing money to help individuals who are homeless … that you’re probably going to get more value by donating money to organizations where that’s their mission,” he said.

Smith said the Latrobe Street Mission provides not only shelter but also resources to help people who are battling addictions. He pointed to other local organizations that provide assistance as well, like the Salvation Army.

Jimmy said he won’t use some of the local services because he doesn’t want to put up with the other clients or he has been rejected for assistance by them in the past. But he argues he isn’t harming anyone by what he’s doing.

“I’m not out here robbing (anybody), breaking into houses,” he said.

At its Sept. 23 meeting, city council approved the first reading of an ordinance to repeal a prohibition in city code against soliciting money at specific locations. The ordinance has not been enforced for about a year after a federal court issued a temporary injunction following the filing of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Repealing the ordinance is part of an effort to settle that case. Newell is hoping to see the new ordinance, which prohibits aggressive tactics like touching a person without their consent or continuing to solicit after being turned down, on the Oct. 14 council agenda.

If adopted, the ordinance would fine violators between $50 and $500.

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