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Signs are now up in Cookeville to discourage drivers from giving money to panhandlers.

Mayor Ricky Shelton says while they want to help those in need, the act of giving cash to panhandlers encourages an “undesirable and dangerous situation.”

Rather than give cash to panhandlers, Shelton suggests donating the funds to a charitable organization in Cookeville whose mission is to help the less fortunate.

“Panhandling and homelessness continue to be a growing issue here and across the country. The city council, city administration and police department receive complaints on a frequent basis, oftentimes with the assumption that the city is doing nothing to address the problem. I want to take this opportunity to share what the city has done and continues to do,” said Mayor Shelton.

In late 2020, Cookeville created an agreement for services with the Upper Cumberland Human Resources Agency’s Substance Abuse Solutions (SAS) program. It created a social work and police partnership. Over the last ten months, 201 people in the city were provided with some type of assistance through the program.

At initial contact, 196 SAS clients indicated that they were homeless. Some of the more frequent forms of assistance provided include peer support (welfare checks), the provision of basic needs such as food and clothing, transportation assistance, and emergency housing. SAS personnel have assisted the Cookeville Police Department with 129 calls for service ranging from mental health crises and domestic violence to overdoses.

In addition to the SAS program, the City has allocated funding for various other programs to help those in need. In 2020, the City of Cookeville purchased and donated 24 beds and mattresses to the Cookeville Rescue Mission.  For the past several years the city has provided funding assistance to Helping Hands and for the PATH Program at Plateau Mental Health Center.

Unfortunately, according to personnel with SAS, a significant portion of the homeless and those panhandling in Cookeville do not want and simply will not accept assistance.  Some appear to have adopted this as a preferred lifestyle. SAS personnel indicate that many of their clients have addiction and/or mental health issues.

There are few legal options to prohibit panhandling. Cities are allowed only to enforce laws granted by the federal and state governments. The First Amendment affords an individual the right to stand on public property and solicit.

However, aggressive panhandling, which is defined in Tennessee Code Section 39-17-313, is a Class C misdemeanor. Aggressive panhandling includes touching someone without their consent, obstructing a vehicle or someone’s path, following someone, and/or making a threatening statement or gesture.

If you see or experience aggressive panhandling you are encouraged to contact the Cookeville Police Department.  The city cannot arrest or remove someone from standing adjacent to a public street panhandling and, unless the property owner is willing to charge an individual with trespass, officers cannot arrest someone for panhandling or camping on a private property.

Last year, the Cookeville City Council considered an ordinance to regulate panhandling within the public right-of-way with the goal of improving the safety of pedestrians and motorists. Sadly, an individual panhandling in a nearby city had been struck by a vehicle and killed. After a public hearing where several citizens spoke against such regulations, and with the concern expressed from our attorneys that it may be unconstitutional, the ordinance was not approved.

This past spring, the city pursued legislation to amend state statutes to provide some authority for local governments to regulate camping and panhandling on public property.  State Representative Ryan Williams and State Senator Paul Bailey supported and sponsored this legislation. The legislation passed in the State House but failed in the Senate.

While there is currently very little any city can do to prohibit panhandling, the Cookeville Police Department has been very active in addressing offenses that may be related.  Since January of 2020, individuals listed as homeless have been arrested 176 times by the Cookeville Police Department. In the past three months alone, 65 homeless persons have been arrested. The most common offense is public intoxication followed by warrants served, shoplifting, trespassing and simple possession.

In addition to the arrests, the Cookeville Police Department responded to 363 calls for service referencing “homeless” in 2020.  So far in 2021, officers responded to 332 such calls. The most common calls are for suspicious persons, trespassing, welfare checks, and investigations.

With the realization that the past year has been incredibly difficult for many, the city is hopeful their rebounding economy will provide opportunities and employment rather than resulting in the choice to panhandle. One of the positive attributes of this community is the caring and giving nature of our residents. City officials encourage those wanting to assist to do so by choosing to give to the many local organizations that can and do provide the valuable social services to those in need.

The city council and city staff share the public’s frustration and concern regarding panhandling and homelessness and will continue to do what is legally possible to address the issue. Officials will also keep searching for methods and approaches to assist those in need and are open to suggestions for how to best do so.  Citizens may contact City Administration at 931 526-9591 or the Cookeville Police Department at 931 526-2125.

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