Community

As Lexington experiences a surge in the number of people begging for money along city streets, angry citizens have taken to Facebook to document and criticize panhandlers.

The Panhandlers of Lexington Ky. Facebook group has more than 3,000 followers and features user-submitted photos of people asking for money along Lexington’s thoroughfares.

Most of the page’s content is critical of the panhandlers, some posts simply document the intersection where someone saw a panhandler and sometimes the group’s organizer posts local news articles about the recent swell of panhandlers.

The group’s organizer declined to comment for this story, but the page’s about section says its purpose is to “bring awareness to a problem that is getting worse in Lexington.”

“Career panhandlers are now on just about every corner,” the page states.

The number of people begging for money in Lexington has shot up since the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the city’s panhandling ban earlier this year, saying it violated free speech protections.

Some panhandlers acknowledge that the swell came in the wake of the ruling, which said Lexington can’t punish people for asking for money or help.

Meanwhile, a debate has sprung up in the comment sections on the group’s page, with some complaining about the group’s pictures and messages.

Liz Epperson, a social worker from Lexington, said she was disappointed by the group, which she said “dehumanizes” homeless people.

“Folks are really used to living their pretty nice and comfortable lives with a fair amount of privilege and just don’t like to see other folks that are struggling and down on their luck,” Epperson said.

Local business owners and officials have called for a new ordinance that would ban people from approaching cars in traffic or walking in street medians.

The city has also dispersed flyers encouraging people to not give money to panhandlers and deployed a van to pick up panhandlers and drive them to city job sites, paying them $9 an hour. The city’s panhandling van initiative began last week and drove 11 panhandlers to pick up trash along the side of roads.

Epperson said that the city’s response to the panhandling surge has been misdirected.

“There are a lot of circumstances that lead people to the margins,” said Epperson. “It’s really upsetting to me that we haven’t taken a more strategic approach to address the root causes about what’s going on as opposed to just saying all of these folks need a job.”

Polly Ruddick, director of Lexington’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, said the proposed “pedestrian safety ordinance” is all about safety.

“We’ve had panhandlers struck by vehicles, we’ve had an incident where one was killed after being struck by a vehicle,” Ruddick said. “So safety is actually very serious. And it’s more for their protection than the motorists’ protection.”

Lexington’s Urban County Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance on May 25. If passed, a 60-day public education period would take place before the policy is implemented.

Those in favor of the proposed ordinance — including Lexington Mayor Jim Gray — say it is designed to protect pedestrians, not outlaw panhandling.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.