There is a fine line between panhandling and nuisance, according to area police, and a number of homeless people who have set up shop in Campustown have been crossing it.
Following a recent rash of complaints from residents and business owners, police officers from the UI and the city of Champaign have made a renewed effort to target aggressive panhandling.
It's not illegal to stand on the sidewalk and ask passersby for money. But it is against the law to touch, follow, block or otherwise pressure someone into giving, police say.
"If they're grabbing you or intimidating you, it's a strong-arm robbery," said UI Police Lt. V.G. "Skip" Frost. "But they're probably not going to do that when police are around. We need people to call us when it happens."
Frost said increased police visibility, especially near Sixth and Green streets - considered the Campustown panhandling nexus - will only go so far without the public's help.
"If it's making people feel unsafe, we're going to address it," he said.
Champaign Police Lt. Brad Yohnka said police are at somewhat of a disadvantage because many of the homeless know the law - for example, panhandling is prohibited within 10 feet of an ATM or bus stop - and the fact that begging in public is not illegal.
"If they've been hassled, they know the laws pretty well," he said. "The worst ones have been kicked out of the shelter because they weren't able to abide by the rules - like having alcohol or drugs."
Yohnka said many of the homeless in the area have drug and alcohol problems, as well as unaddressed mental health issues and long arrest records.
Earlier this month police issued a UI letter of trespass to a panhandler accused of being aggressive. A review of his arrest record showed he was a convicted sexual predator with 15 arrests, including sexual assault.
On the same day, a vagrant in the Illini Union turned out to be a registered sex offender and the center of several harassment complaints filed by female UI students riding the bus system.
"They're not just asking for money," Yohnka said. "They're down there to commit crimes as well. A lot of them are opportunists. They sit there and wait for an opening."
The officers said panhandlers come to the campus area hoping to find empathetic students, many of whom become more likely to act on that empathy when alcohol is added.
Both officers advised against giving any money to area panhandlers.
"It reinforces their behavior," Frost said. "For some of them, this is their choice. If people stopped giving them money, they'd find another place to go. The students have huge hearts and they feel like they're helping someone. But in the end, you're helping enable them continue the lifestyle they've got."
"The bottom line is, no. That's why they hang out there day after day, year after year," Yohnka said. "If you're going to donate money, donate it to the places where they can turn to. There are lots of services here set up to help them."
Frost said inebriated students don't always call the police if a panhandler becomes aggressive because they're afraid they'll get into trouble as well.
"We'll get calls two to three days later," he said. "That's too late."
"Sometimes, when we get there the victim is already gone," Yohnka said.
"We're not going to cite a victim," Frost said. "That's not our main focus. If they're being aggressive, we've got to get the complaint so we can act."
Frost said the police departments do not have a vendetta against the homeless - many of whom have been in the area for years.
"We're really trying to change their behavior," Frost said. "If those folks who choose not to abide by the rules already in place, then we'll do our best to remove them from the campus district."
How to help the homeless
Champaign County has several homeless shelters and programs for homeless people. To volunteer or donate, contact the shelter.
- TIMES Center, 217-398-7785
- Salvation Army Shelter, 217-373-7825
- Center for Women in Transition, 217-352-7151
- St. Jude Catholic Worker House, 217-355-9774