Columbus Cracks Down On Highway-Ramp Panhandlers


UPDATED: Friday July 19, 2013 6:43 PM

You've probably seen them on your way on and off the highways around Columbus.

And some of you might have rolled down your window to give them cash.

But now, Columbus police are cracking down on highway-ramp panhandlers and asking for your help.

As long as it's not aggressive, panhandling on the sidewalk or almost anywhere else is free speech and perfectly legal.

But move onto a freeway ramp, and that's no longer the case.

Police say they will no longer look the other way.

His name is Nick. He didn't want to share his last name with 10TV News.

And he is homeless.

"There's a fine line between being out here and not being out there. A quick series of events could happen and anybody could be out here,” he says.

On days when he can't find work, you’ll find him standing at the end of an exit ramp, his unspoken plea scrawled on cardboard.

"I don't want to do it. I don't want to be standing in front of a line of traffic with people looking at me, wondering what they're thinking about me," he says.  "It's demeaning. It's just real demeaning."

But Columbus police say what Nick is doing, no matter how understandable, is illegal.

The problem is his location.

"In this case, they're on freeway ramps," says Columbus Police Commander Chris Bowling. "Those are part of the freeway system. We don't allow pedestrians on the freeway at all. And so they are on the freeway technically at that point."

Bowling says it's a growing problem, drawing a growing number of complaints.

Last Friday, a panhandler was struck by a car at Ackerman Road and state Route 315, and he says there are reports of panhandlers reaching for car doors.

"So, as of this Monday, as opposed to warning and sending people moving, we're gone to more strict enforcement."

Bowling says it's for the safety of everyone involved.

But he says enforcement is hampered by drivers who give money.

"Now, we're just looking at trying to get people to understand if you continue to provide funds for these people, they're going to keep coming back no matter what we do."

Nick calls it harassment.

"We're not bothering nobody. We don't approach cars, we're just standing there with our signs. And if people want to help us, they help us," he says. "There's a lot more pressing issues going on in this city that they should be putting their sights on than someone standing on a freeway ramp holding a sign."

Homeless advocates agree with police.

They say this is potentially dangerous to people asking for money, as well as drivers.

They say the best way to help -- and make sure your dollars are going to people who are actually in need- -- is to donate to organizations serving them.

For more information on those organizations and how to donate, click here.

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