About 200 Fells Point merchants and residents gathered in the waterfront neighborhood last night to vent their frustration at panhandlers who they said harass residents and customers and drive away business.
By the end of the meeting, they had no definitive solutions, but they did decide on some action -- citizen patrols, a campaign to encourage people to refrain from giving money to panhandlers, and a committee to work with the mayor, the state's attorney and police to address the problem.
The meeting at Lista's restaurant was called by the Fells Point Business Association to address rising complaints against panhandlers, particularly those who engage in "valet parking," charging visitors to park in vacant lots, or asking for money to watch cars.
Police Maj. John E. Gavrilis, commander of the Southeastern District, said his officers make arrests when they are called for but are frustrated in how to address aggressive panhandlers.
In 1994, a U.S. District judge struck down a city law on aggressive panhandlers, saying it unfairly targeted homeless people and beggars but not others who aggressively solicit money.
Major Gavrilis said that police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier will meet with the American Civil Liberties Union to determine if some middle ground can be found to salvage the panhandling law.
The best way to get rid of panhandlers, many Fells Point residents and merchants said, is to stop giving them money.
"The people that are down here I can say are not homeless," said Nicholas J. Filipidis, owner of Jimmy's Restaurant on South Broadway. "The panhandlers are parking valets. This is a job to them. It's a scam. Do not give them money and they will leave."
Residents and merchants also complained that problems are not limited to panhandling but include a general increase in crime. They made several references to the Oct. 15 mugging of U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in front of her Fells Point rowhouse.
But, they said, much of the crime relates to young people who are rowdy, commit minor acts of vandalism and urinate in public after neighborhood bars close.
"These may be minor crimes," said Steve Bunker, president of Fells Point Community Organization. "But these minor crimes are costing us a lot of peace of mind and ultimately are costing the city of Baltimore a lot of money."