Panhandlers and litter could soon be a thing of the past at two underpasses on the Northside.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is working with the city of Jackson to address the problem at the I-55 North underpasses at Canton Mart Road and Adkins Boulevard.
The areas have become havens for vagrants, some of whom have been seen sleeping there, panhandling and bringing in litter.
After receiving a number of complaints, MDOT cleaned up the trash at both underpasses last week.
Up next, the agency is planning to erect signs there saying the underpasses are off limits to the public.
Transportation officials are also planning to work with the city to determine how to enforce the prohibitions.
Signs being erected at the underpasses will say “No public access,” MDOT Public Information Officer Michael Flood said. “They are pretty self-explanatory – that means there can be no loitering, no sleeping. It’s a safety issue. You don’t want people hanging out at the frontage road where people drive by at 50 miles per hour.”
The signs will be made by MDOT’s sign shop next week, and will be installed by crews as soon as crews are able to.
“It could be as early as the end of the month, but (I’m) not positive on an exact time.” Time will tell if the signs will work, he said.
As for the litter, Flood said crews maintain the underpasses as their schedules permit. However he was not sure how often that would be.
“These are the same crews that patch potholes and handle other similar maintenance work, so whenever their scheduling allows is when it gets done,” he said. “I believe the county and city litter crews also do it when timing allows.”
Meanwhile, the state and the city still must decide how they will prevent vagrants from congregating at the spots.
Despite owning the underpasses, the state does not have the authority to stop vagrants from using the area. Jackson can only require vagrants to move if they’re obstructing traffic.
“We can’t tell them not to bring stuff there and we can’t tell them not to ask for money,” Police Chief James Davis said. “But we can enforce the rules if they’re obstructing traffic.”
Davis said the department can also arrest individuals for littering but have to catch them in the act.
The city’s hands are tied, in part, thanks to the passage of HB 668 in 2018.
The law repealed Mississippi Code Sections 95-35-29 through 99-29-13, which were the state’s vagrancy laws.
The bill was authored by Reps. Dana Criswell of DeSoto County, Abe Hudson of Bolivar and Sunflower counties and Kabir Karriem of Lowndes County.
“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,” Criswell 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.”
Criswell said that while the law repealed state statute, it did not prohibit cities from crafting their own vagrancy ordinances.
Meridian had a problem similar to Jackson’s when it passed two of its own panhandling ordinances in November 2019.
One ordinance makes it unlawful for “anyone on the street to pass an item to a driver or a driver to pass an item to someone on the street,” according to a November 2019 article from WTOK.com.
The other ordinance allows businesses to erect signs prohibiting panhandling. Panhandlers found begging for money in those areas can be arrested and charged, the article states.
Jackson Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote was unaware of the ordinances in Meridian, but said he would look into them. .
He said he’s received complaints from numerous business owners near the overpasses, who not only beg for money but wander onto private property and scare away customers.
Said Foote: “We need to protect those businesses and make sure they have a good environment to earn a living and can provide a good environment for shoppers.”
Approximately 16,000 vehicles travel Canton Mart each day, while 18,000 use Adkins near the underpasses, according to MDOT traffic count data. Numbers were not available for the frontage roads.