Lexington cracks down on panhandlers

By By Beth Musgrave Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON -- Police are stepping up patrols downtown and asking people not to give to panhandlers as complaints grow about the number of people begging on streets and at intersections.

In February, the state Supreme Court struck down a 2007 Lexington ordinance that prohibits panhandling on public streets or intersections, saying it violated the First Amendment. Since the ordinance was tossed, the number of people asking for money on Lexington streets and complaints about panhandling has skyrocketed, police and council members say.

Mayor Jim Gray said he has formed a task force to look at the issue of panhandling.

Police have increased the number of police bike units downtown. The city has also distributed thousands of fliers that encourage people not to give to panhandlers but instead to direct panhandlers to social service agencies that provide food, clothing, housing and employment opportunities.

But Gray cautioned there was no overnight solution. Over Easter weekend, Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard said, he received more than 25 reports of people panhandling.

Panhandling was once most common downtown but now people holding signs asking for help can be seen at nearly every major intersection and in suburban strip malls, he said.

"Most of these people are much younger and they aren't homeless," Barnard said. "Lexington is known as a very generous community."