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Homeless Advocates Take Issue With Bangor Police Over Facebook Posts

BANGOR, Maine - A former Green Party candidate for governor, and advocates for the homeless, are protesting a recent Facebook posting by the Bangor Police Department.

In the post, published last Thursday, the department accused most panhandlers in the city of scamming the public out of money and spending it on drugs and alcohol.

The department asked city residents to stop giving money to people standing on medians in the middle of the road, and, instead, make donations to the numerous charities around town.

But critics, including Green activist Pat LaMarche and other advocates for the poor, say panhandling is protected under the First Amendment and should not be stigmatized and discouraged by the police.

"Sharpies are a great tool," begins the June 4 message on the Facebook page of the Bangor Police Department. The permanent markers, the post notes, are used for many things - like marking your underwear before heading off to summer camp. But "sharpies can also be used to manipulate the feelings of others," the message goes on to say, claiming panhandlers in Bangor are using the permanent pens to write dishonest signs to convince people to give them a handout.

"I have personally panhandled myself," says Stephen Martin - or two years now, says Martin, who adds that he's been homeless for three.

Martin is at a Bangor shelter called Hope House. He's standing on the sidewalk right now, outside the city's Police Department, protesting last week's Facebook message from law enforcement. "All I want is a little bit of money so I can eat. How harmless is that?" he says.

In its post, the Police Department says panhandlers like Martin are the exception. Most, the department says, are trying to dupe people out of money that will eventually get spent on alcohol and drugs.

"The police post said they were using their sharpies to manipulate people. Well, the police were using a Facebook post to manipulate people," says Pat LaMarche, the former Green Party candidate for governor, who now works at a homeless shelter in Pennsylvania.

LaMarche happened to be in Maine for her father's memorial service Monday. A friend showed the Facebook post to her and she decided to come down and do some symbolic panhandling in front of the Police Department in protest.

In her many years working in shelters, LaMarche estimates that 50 percent of homeless residents at any given time were working, "and about 30 percent more were their children. So 80 percent of my shelters have been the working poor and their kids."

LaMarche says any message that discourages panhandling is also inappropriate on constitutional grounds. Panhandling is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"We've had to challenge, across the country, a number of efforts to ban panhandlers or get them out of downtown areas," says Zach Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine. "Courts are in agreement across the country, state and federal, that panhandling is protected under the First Amendment. In our experience, nobody stands out on the side of the road, in the snow and the wind, asking for a few dollars, if they have some alternative."

Pat LaMarche is calling on the Bangor Police to apologize for the Facebook post.

The department did not respond to MPBN's request for an interview. But in a statement, Sgt. Tim Cotton, the department's spokesperson, says, "Our post was intended to warn visitors and citizens of the City of Bangor about aggressive panhandling and the benefits of giving to a local, verifiable charity....we apologize to anyone who misunderstood the intent of our post."