State cuts to mental health and new detention rules associated with the COVID-19 outbreak have created perfect conditions for panhandling to thrive in the capital city, so says Jackson Police Chief James Davis.
“Panhandlers have plagued the capital city, not only Precinct Four, but all over Jackson,” he said. “You cut the funds for the state hospital and now cities across the state are feeling the effects, because you don’t have a place to direct these mentally ill individuals.”
Panhandling has grown exponentially on the Northside in recent years. It’s not uncommon to see individuals begging for money at almost all of the Northside’s intersections.
What is uncommon is finding an intersection where someone isn’t holding up a sign.
The Jackson Police Department (JPD) can arrest individuals for obstructing traffic – that’s when those individuals walk out to a car and take money, and as a result slow traffic down.
However, because of COVID-19, individuals being charged with misdemeanors are not being held at the Hinds County Detention Center.
“We field release them, because there’s nowhere to house them,” Davis said. “That may contribute to the increase.”
For panhandlers needing mental help, Davis said there are few options, thanks to state cuts in mental health funding.
Between 2014 and 2015, funding cuts led to a dramatic decline in the beds at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, with total number going from 476 to 342.
The number of people being helped by the hospital decreased as well, going from 2,820 in 2014 to 2,155 in 2019, state annual reports show.
This year, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health will have a budget of approximately $577.5 million, about $2 million less than the previous year, according to the department’s website.
With fewer beds, Davis said some mentally ill individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and wind up on the streets.
When police encounter the mentally ill panhandling, they dispatch the department’s crisis intervention team, and offer to take the person by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) for treatment.
Officers cannot force individuals to seek medical assistance. And for those that do, after receiving immediate care, “they’re back out doing the same thing,” Davis said.
UMMC does not track the number of people referred to the hospital for mental help by the police.
Business owners along the I-55 North corridor have seen shoplifting and vandalism increase, while motorists are often slowed down by panhandlers walking into the street to take money.
To help alleviate the problem, JPD is “aggressively beefing up our patrol along I-55, especially after hours.”
Davis said the increased police presence likely won’t stop panhandling but could serve as a deterrent to shoplifting and obstructing traffic.
“I hear from business owners in those areas. I hear from residents in those areas along I-55, and they come to me and ask, ‘Chief, where do all these people come from? Why are they out here in our community?’
“They tell us that they’re running in their stores and taking merchandise and threatening employees. They’re the same ones that are panhandling,” Davis said.
“A lot of the things they are taking are small items. By the time the police get there, they’re gone. That’s why were trying to keep the extra patrol there,” he said.
“We don’t want people to get hurt, especially those people who are trying to shop or those who are trying to have a job at those stores. We don’t want them to be in a position where they have to defend themselves or their merchandise.”
Davis is also concerned that panhandlers could get hit by traffic. In the last two years, he’s seen an increase in the number of pedestrians being hit along the I-55 corridor. In June, local media reported one woman being hit at the I-55 frontage road near Canton Mart Road.
It was not clear if the victim in that case was a panhandler or vagrant. However, the overpass at Canton Mart is a major gathering place for the homeless.
Most panhandlers are from outside the metro area, many suffer from mental illness or drug addiction and many still seek handouts to support their drug habits.
“I can’t say what percentage, but I can tell you it’s a large percentage of both drug users and the mentally ill,” Davis said. “It would be great to get more help from the state to address this.”
The state and the city have been grappling with the homeless problem for a while now. This summer, the state erected fences at the I-55/Adkins Boulevard underpass. It was not clear what the state’s plans were for two other underpasses, I-55 and Canton Mart and I-55 and East Northside.
And earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance prohibiting camping at the underpasses. That measure makes camping in the area a misdemeanor. However, individuals caught violating the rule are not being arrested or detained, because of COVID. The ordinance also does not address panhandling.