American Fork enacted a new approach to the issue of panhandlers earlier this week: If beggars have nowhere to stand, they have nowhere to beg.
After complaints of aggressive panhandling overwhelmed American Fork officials, the city erected a series of concrete walls called Jersey barriers at the median strips on the 900 West and State Street intersection, prime real estate to approach motorists at a red light. Panhandlers can still ply their trade, but the barriers move them to the sidewalks and parking lots out of traffic.
American Fork residents gave an overwhelmingly positive response, calling it long overdue for the amount of time the retail-adjacent median has been a panhandler favorite.
"Since we put [the barrier] up, we've gotten calls and emails saying 'thank you, thank you, thank you,'" said Craig Whitehead, American Fork city administrator. "We've been wanting to do something for a long time, people were just tired of it. We look at it as a temporary fix until we can put up some shrubs or planter boxes or something more decorative."
Any beggars caught standing or sitting on the barriers will be asked to leave, then cited for a second violation.
Panhandlers on the 3-foot-wide median in a busy shopping district became a traffic danger as well as a business deterrent. Sometimes aggressively harassing passersby for money, panhandlers would be in and out of local shops using the public restrooms and telephones, even trying to sleep overnight in a nearby IHOP. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco complained of business siphoned off by people selling from car trunks or shopping carts. Area businesses finally met with the city administration to workshop solutions. They settled on the Jersey barriers when a local contractor volunteered to find used material and install it for the city free of charge.
"I told the city that if they could pay for the barriers, I'd haul and set them up," said Brian Bush, head of BD Bush Excavation. "They had some leftover [Jersey barriers] from the I-15 construction for way less than the price of new ones, so we got it all set up."
Instead of the $200 price for new Jersey barriers, American Fork purchased the used concrete for $50 per section. Bush said he couldn't take the growing beggar population after a particularly distasteful exchange with a regular American Fork panhandler.
"The tie-die guy, the ringleader, I rolled down my window to ask if he had a job," Bush said. "He started getting really aggressive and told me to [expletive] off . I called up to the mayor and said, 'Hey, we're here to help.' I've lived in American Fork my whole life, and I'm just sick of it. These panhandlers are a joke."
The man who confronted Bush is a well-known panhandler involved in a series of successful lawsuits against American Fork and Draper over the right to hold signs, stand in public areas and ask for money.
The Tribune was unable to find any panhandlers in the area on a recent afternoon.