At first, recent sightings of supposedly needy families holding signs asking for money at stores along Veterans Highway and Nesconset Highway prompted Long Islanders to graciously open their wallets to help.
However, some now fear the panhandlers may be scamming people and exploiting children after the adults holding the signs were allegedly spotted with different children in their company.
An Aug. 29 post on a blog called "She Thinks That..." detailed sightings of panhandlers – along with accounts of seeing people giving them money, food, or other items – and has elicited comments from people who claim they saw the panhandlers in Commack, Smithtown, Hauppauge, the Three Village area, and other Suffolk County communities.
The blog quotes one Setauket resident who said she gave $10 to one panhandler outside , only to see the same man two days later with a different woman and different children at another Target location 20 miles away.
"I started hearing from neighbors that there seems to be a ring of people covering Long Island, from East to West, with the same sign," she said. "I’m disgusted that there has been nothing done to stop them, and that children are being dragged into their scam. If anyone is a victim, it’s not me. It’s those poor kids.”
One of the blog's commenters wrote: "I seen [sic] this family at . Feeling horrible for them I also gave $10.00. Then two weeks later seen them at target in BayShore same man different wife and kids. I too felt swindled!! Very sad for the children! It needs to be stopped!!"
Another commenter spotted the panhandlers in Hauppauge, Commack and Smithtown, eventually calling the non-emergency police line and writing: "I gave him a bag of clean baby items/blankets and a few dollars and left the parking lot in tears for that poor little baby ... 3 hrs later, I spotted the same sign (different people) in Commack ... 2 days later, same sign and different people AGAIN in Smithtown’s Uncle Giuseppe shopping center. AND they were leaning on the back of their 2011 Chrysler."
The Suffolk County Police Department has received several recent reports of people begging for money, including:
- Aug. 24 at 2:50 p.m. at Target in Commack;
- Aug. 24 at 7:40 p.m. at the same location;
- Aug. 22 at 7:07 p.m. at the same location;
- Aug. 21 at 1:31 p.m. at the same location;
- Aug. 19 at 2:30 p.m. at the same location;
- Aug. 18 at 5:38 p.m. at Walmart in East Setauket.
However, a law that prohibited panhandling was declared unconstitutional within the last two years, according to Inspector James Rhoads of the SCPD's fourth precinct.
"There used to be a law that said you weren’t allowed to loiter for the purposes of begging, but there is no such law now," he said in an interview Thursday. "It’s one of those things that just got declared unconstitutional. You ask somebody for money, it’s freedom of speech."
So while panhandlers can't be arrested, police can ask them to leave the property. Rhoads said police can offer them emergency assistance, such as temporary housing, if they are legitimately in need. He said the majority of the calls they have received express concern for the welfare of the children involved.
"We’re aware of the problem," Rhoads said. "As far as making an arrest, we can’t do that at this time. ... But we are looking into alternatives as to what we can do."
Have you seen panhandlers at places such as Target and Walmart? Have you given them money, or have you called the police? Log in to Patch and tell us in the comments.