Shawn Bates is homeless. On any given night, he says, he may sleep in a shelter, in a tent, on a light-rail train or on the street.
But during the day you’ll often find the 38-year-old on the median at the intersection of E. 46th Street and Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, wearing a mask and holding a cardboard sign asking for money.
People are frequently seen soliciting donations on street medians across the city, prompting reader Darla Krutzig to ask, “Is it legal to panhandle in the median of Minneapolis city streets? It seems really dangerous.” She turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project that answers questions from readers.
On a recent afternoon, Bates was out on the median, panhandling without much success. In a couple hours, he said, he collected $4. A police officer drove by and Bates waved, and the officer waved back. Bates says police usually leave him alone.
“As long you don’t bother people, they don’t bother you,” he said. Bates waits until a motorist, sitting at the traffic light, beckons him over, he said. Then he hustles over, takes the money and retreats to the median
“That’s an ideal approach and it’s legal,” said Timothy Richards of the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office. “I think most panhandlers conduct themselves in a law-abiding manner.”
Still, the legality of panhandling on a median is a bit complicated.
“Whether it’s legal or not depends on how you conduct yourself,” says Richards. “If you are standing on a median by itself, that’s legal. And if you are standing on a median asking for donations, that is more than likely legal and the city of Minneapolis will not prosecute you for that.”
But threatening or harassing someone is illegal, he said. If you express or intend to harm them or their property, it could constitute harassment.
“If you engage in disorderly conduct, if you are loud and boisterous in a manner that would disturb a person’s peace and quiet, that could be illegal,” he added. “If you clearly block a pedestrian or vehicular traffic, it might be illegal.”
But what if a driver stops to give money, backing up traffic?
The panhandler is not breaking the law, Richards said. It’s the car that stopped. But if the panhandler walked in front of the car, stopping traffic, it could be a violation.
“They are not charged with panhandling,” Richards said. “They are charged with behavior that accompanies the panhandling.”
That could mean a ticket, but it could lead to an arrest if the violation appears to be ongoing.
“The first approach by officers is usually to give the person a warning to stop what ever behavior is causing the problem, but not to stop the solicitation itself,” he said.
If you'd like to submit a Curious Minnesota question, fill out the form below:
Read more Curious Minnesota stories: