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All it takes is one bad panhandler to ruin your day.

Maybe he got too close when he asked for your spare change, or pestered you after you said no.

On any given day downtown, panhandlers walk the Theater District, Elmwood Avenue, West Chippewa Street or Main Street.

Police estimated there are from 30 to 100 Buffalo panhandlers, depending on the season.

“Panhandling jumps out at you on the streets of Buffalo,” said Central District Police Chief Brian Patterson. “Main Street is a vacuum – no vehicles, no retail, no bodies on the street. That’s a dynamic that makes panhandling look like it’s a bigger problem than it really is.”

Getting a handle on panhandling is a rite of spring for city merchants, visitors and police, who view it as a quality-of-life issue. Many municipalities including Buffalo have enacted ordinances that prohibit aggressive panhandling, although enforcing the law is discretionary, police said.

“Panhandling is not a frequent violation,” said Patterson, who heads the downtown police district and gives hourlong seminars on panhandling to law firms, merchant associations and other civic groups.

“Police officers use discretion,” he said. “They are not required to arrest panhandlers. Usually the action taken is to move them along.”

Buffalo’s ordinance against aggressive panhandlers was enacted with the blessing of former Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, who at the time recounted several first-hand encounters with panhandlers at an ATM. The legislation was designed in line with a panhandling law in Rochester that was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

The Buffalo law prohibits a panhandler from touching you or from coming within an arm’s length. It also prohibits panhandling at a bus stop, parking lot or within 20 feet of an ATM. Penalties for first offenders include fines from $25 to $250. For a second conviction within 12 months, the penalty may be up to 15 days in jail. Community service may be given rather than fines.

It takes a complaint for an officer to arrest an aggressive panhandler, said Patterson, who advised people to call police after they have been panhandled.

“If the officer witnesses it, that’s different,” he said, “but how often do you think a panhandler operates in front of an officer?”

Rarely, according to Buffalo Police Detective Edward M. Cotter, who works downtown.

“If I don’t witness the panhandling, it would be a violation trespass,” said Cotter. “We go to court. He pleads guilty and gets time served. He spends two days in jail, which does nothing to curb it. He’ll just move further down the street.”

Cash fuels panhandlers

Jay Manno owns Soho Burger Bar on West Chippewa. When it comes to clearing panhandlers from the sidewalks near his corner business, he is vigilant.

“There are people out there willing to work for food or money,” Manno said. “And then there are panhandlers. Most of them are not homeless. Panhandlers are event-driven. The key is not to engage them.”

Money fuels panhandlers, agreed Mike Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, who stationed three AmeriCorps rangers along Main Street from 3 to 11 p.m. daily. The rangers help discourage panhandling and vagrants, said Schmand, who compared panhandlers to fishermen.

“They only go where the fish are biting,” he said.

Handling a panhandler can be a social challenge for people, said Patterson. He described the best response to a panhandler: “A quick look in the eye. It says you are not afraid, and it puts the panhandler on their heels. It takes a second. You are not obligated to speak to the panhandler. In fact, you shouldn’t.”

“Just keep walking”

One recent day at Main and Court streets, a panhandler approached two young men and asked for change. Although one of the men reached in his pocket, he came up empty-handed, sending the panhandler away.

Matt Hampton, 26, of Cheektowaga, explained why he said no:

“There are some gentlemen who are very respectful and honest with you, and yeah I’ll throw them some change in my pocket.

“But most of them I don’t, because I know they’re going right to the store to buy beer. Sometimes I’ll actually take the guy to the store and buy him something to eat instead of giving him money, but some guys just walk up to you and they’re rude, saying they need a beer. I’m recovering myself, I’m not going to feed anybody else’s habit.”

“No one encourages panhandling,” said Dale Zuchlewski, a former Buffalo Common Council member who is executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. But that’s what happens when you give panhandlers money.

Zuchlewski said the best approach is to “just keep walking.”

He said there are more constructive ways to help such as donating money to a legitimate charity like the Matt Urban Hope Center, Buffalo City Mission or Salvation Army that organizes soup kitchens and outreach centers for the poor.

Way to earn $10 a day

For Allen Baraclough, panhandling is a way to earn $10 a day to supplement his meager disability income.

He would rather be employed, he said, but his ability to get a job is hampered by poor literacy skills. A friend, he explained, helped him spell the words for his sign: “Broke. Please help.”

Baraclough, 44, panhandles outside a drive-thru at a restaurant on Main Street across from the University at Buffalo’s South Campus. He is one of the sign-carrying panhandlers who station themselves at highway exits and fast-food drive-thrus.

“Some people give, and some don’t,” said Baraclough, who at 9:30 a.m. was wrapping up his morning shift at the drive-thru. “They look at the sign, and a lot of the people who help say, 'God bless you.’ ”

Baraclough folded the cardboard sign and put it in his orange cloth bag with other personal belongings. He is not homeless. He said he lives in a one-room apartment on Military Road. On this morning, he was on his way to return a DVD he rented for free with a coupon at Family Video.

“This is really not called panhandling,” he said. “Panhandling is asking people for money. I’m holding a sign asking for help. There’s nothing wrong with a guy holding a sign who is not approaching anybody. If someone calls the police on me, it could be trespass. My record is clean. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com