On the Rise

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Recent bill could be contributing to increase in vagrancy

A bill authored by a North Mississippi lawmaker likely has increased panhandling in the capital city.

The measure, HB 668, did away with many state statutes governing homelessness and vagrancy, laws that also made it illegal to panhandle. It was passed in the 2018 session and went into effect July 1 of the same year.

Since then, panhandling and vagrancy across the capital city has appeared to increase.

Motorists driving along any of the major intersections on the Northside have likely been asked for money, while others have noticed homeless encampments spring up at some vacant buildings.

The bill was authored by DeSoto County Rep. Dana Criswell, Bolivar and Sunflower counties Rep. Abe Hudson, and Lowndes County Rep. Kabir Karriem.

Criswell said the laws were unconstitutional. “If a person was idle or had no visible means of support, they could be declared a vagrant and at that point lose all their rights,” he said. “The police could declare that person a vagrant and arrest them.

“If you’re not breaking a law, not harming anybody, not taking property, and the officer says you have (no visible means of) support (and can arrest you), to me that’s a problem.”

HB 668 repealed Mississippi Code Sections 97-35-29 to 99-29-13, which defined vagrancy and spelled out penalties for those arrested for it. Among definitions, vagrants included “every able-bodied person who shall go begging for a livelihood,” or panhandlers.

Vagrants, under the repealed sections, were also classified as common gamblers, prostitutes, keepers of houses of prostitution and able-bodied individuals who had no property or means of support.

In some cases, those convicted could face 10 to 30 days in jail.

Criswell said the measure shouldn’t prevent municipalities from passing their own panhandling rules.

Ridgeland has no plans at this time to enact new panhandling rules, according to Lisa Walters, Mayor Gene McGee’s executive assistant.

Officials with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s administration were unavailable for comment at press time. Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler also couldn’t be reached.

Many of the vagrants can be found at frontage road intersections seeking assistance from motorists. Jackson Police spokesman Sgt. Roderick Holmes said the increase likely could be the result of the HB 668’s passage.  

“As far as increasing the amount of people now at the intersections, if they’re keeping up with the current laws, it may possibly have an effect,” Holmes said. “They may see that they’re not going to get in trouble for what they used to go to jail for.”

Police officers say they have other tools to stop this panhandling, even with state vagrancy laws stricken from the books.

“What we do, if the person is out in the roadway, blocking traffic or if they walk into traffic, we can site them for obstruction,” Ridgeland Police Spokesman Lt. Tony Willridge said. “We can sign an affidavit against them for obstructing.”

Holmes said individuals can also press charges against vagrants who become violent. He said there have been several cases reported where panhandlers will hit a person’s car or yell at a person for not giving money.

“They can be arrested for disorderly conduct if the officer sees it,” he said. “The motorist could pursue the charges of threat or simple assault, or it could be malicious mischief if there’s damage to the vehicle.”

Malicious mischief can result in felony or misdemeanor charges, depending on the value of the property damaged or destroyed, according to Mississippi code.

In those cases, motorists have to remain at the scene after they call the police, something that rarely happens. Said Holmes, “Most motorists are on the go, so it’s not as usual for them to stop and stand by until we get there.”

Vagrants also can be arrested for trespassing if they refuse to leave private property. However the threat of a misdemeanor charge is a minimal deterrent. Those charged are often back on the street, hours after they’re booked.

One homeless man has had to be removed multiple times from the former Express Printing building at 1400 block Old Square Road, after having set up an encampment there.

Shelton Bounds, with Mark S. Bounds Realty, said having the encampment there has made it harder to sell the building.

The person has been forced to leave numerous times, only to come back later. The back side of the empty office building is now littered with grocery baskets, black plastic bags, clothes and other items - signs of its continued use by the homeless.

District 70 Rep. Kathy Sykes believes factors other than HB 668 have contributed to the increase in vagrancy. “Some (vagrants) have mental health issues and need to be taken care of in a state institution, but we decided we needed to cut the mental health budget or just do level funding to care for those who need services,” she said. 

After receiving a big increase in 2016, state funding for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (DMH) has been dramatically slashed.

In 2016, the state allocated $245 million for the agency, a $7 million increase over fiscal year 2015. However, the budget was cut to $241 million in 2017, and to less than $227 million for 2018 and 2019. The budget was increased to $232.6 million for FY 2020, according to DMH figures.

According to a ProPublica investigation, the number of psychiatric beds have also been reduced as a result of the cutbacks, going from 1,156 in 2011 to 486 in 2017.

HB 668 passed the House on a 116-0 vote, with two members absent or not voting, and three members voting present. The Senate approved the bill on a 51-0 vote, with one member not voting.

All members of the Northside delegation voted in favor.

District 25 Sen. Walter Michel said he’s seen an increase in panhandling in the area, especially at Lakeland Drive near St. Dominic’s Hospital. However, he doesn’t believe it’s increased as a result of 668.

He points to the fact that vagrancy has not increased in Flowood, Madison or Ridgeland.

Ridgeland did report an increase in panhandling last summer along East County Line Road. However, numbers have been down in recent months, according to Willridge.

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