SEPTA begins effort to stop ‘aggressive panhandling’

 A SEPTA rider stops to give some change to a man panhandling outside the 11th Street station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A SEPTA rider stops to give some change to a man panhandling outside the 11th Street station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In response to complaints from passengers, SEPTA intends to crack down on aggressive panhandling on the subway.

“This isn’t an issue of folks complaining about people politely asking for money and moving along,” said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel. “This is an issue of people feeling afraid because there are unsavory characters demanding money. It’s a fine line between robbery and panhandling, and we want to prevent both.”

The transit agency is essentially imposing a two-strikes rule: The first time people are caught harassing passengers for money, SEPTA police will offer to take them to places where they can get help for drug addiction or mental illness, or access services for the homeless.

The second time, Nestel said, they could be arrested for disorderly conduct, harassment, or defiant trespassing. Panhandling itself is not a crime, he noted, but city police routinely cite those begging for change with offenses like obstructing the highway, leaving them with fines they cannot afford to pay.

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“We’re urging folks who need help to accept it,” Nestel said. “We’re also warning them that behavior is unacceptable on SEPTA vehicles.”

Nestel said SEPTA has received “an overwhelming number of complaints from riders” on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines. He said timing of the new effort is unrelated to the upcoming NFL Draft, which is expected to draw more than 150,000 visitors to Philadelphia from April 27 to 29.

So far, SEPTA has pulled eight people off subway cars for aggressive panhandling. None of them agreed to be transported to services. Spokesman Andrew Busch said officers leave those removed from the subway system with the names and contact information of social service organizations, such as Project HOME.

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