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Panhandling and drugs: A harsh reality

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The City of Utica offers resources to help the homeless and discourages people from giving panhandlers cash instead of letting community organizations intervene.

UTICA, N.Y. -- The city of Utica is running a bold public service announcement on television about unsheltered panhandlers on the city's streets.

It says, in part, "...down on their luck, or suffering mental health issues, they have taken to the streets of Utica, panhandling money from citizens. This money is mostly used to feed their addictions."

"I'm just tired of being accused of using drugs because of everybody else, people that do," says Mark, panhandling in Downtown Utica Thursday.

But, he says the city's PSA isn't wrong.

"It's not everybody, but it is some," said Mark.

Raymond Smith volunteers at the Utica Rescue Mission. But he grew up on the street, and says, in most cases, your well-intended donations buy drugs.

"When I was panhandling, it all went toward drugs. All of it. And that is the harsh reality of it. Most people that are panhandling are using drugs," says Raymond.

And, he says, it can be pretty lucrative.

"Upwards of a couple hundred dollars a day. If they go out there every day, they make more than most people make working a regular job."

Tax-free. Officials at the Rescue Mission says these people absolutely do not need to be on the street.

"They can just come in, watch tv, they can have a cup of coffee, get a donut, have something to eat. Then from there, we build a rapport with them. And through that rapport, they begin to tell us what's going on. They begin to trust us. And through that, we can really get to the root of what really, we need to do, to help them," says Ernie Talerico, of the Rescue Mission.

"So first and foremost I think our city -- we're noted for a very warm, generous, giving community," says Utica Mayor, Robert Palmieri.

While the donations come from a good place, they likely end up in a bad one, so the Rescue Mission and the Mayor urge you -- keep the cash in the car. And give to the agencies that have the resources to get the panhandlers the help they need.

"You're not helping them. You're absolutely hindering them from getting the recovery and the proper medication, help, that they need," says Mayor Palmieri.

Officials have also received several complaints about panhandlers around the city, but there isn't much to be done about it, legally speaking.

Police say panhandlers cannot be removed from public spaces unless they are interfering with traffic or causing safety issues.

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