The call went out: "Yo, po-po!" and within seconds, the panhandlers who meander with regularity through the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard near Boston Medical Center scattered to parts unknown.
A police wagon with lights flashing but no sirens rolled slowly through the crossing, and officers warned stragglers to move on. No one was arrested. Within an hour, it was business as usual for the street beggars trolling with cups outstretched.
While city police say they are working on a new policy to handle homelessness and panhandling, the issue remains a cat-and-mouse game. Although panhandling is not illegal, aggressively asking people for money is. If people complain about aggressive panhandling, as they did yesterday, police take notice.
"Ultimately it falls on us to try to address the situation," said Officer James Kenneally, a Boston police spokesman. "It may be a bigger problem you can't arrest your way out of."
The Supreme Judicial Court in 1997 held that peaceful panhandling is a protected form of speech.
In 2007, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said some homeless people "had become problems on the street."
The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard is often crowded with panhandlers, window washers, and people selling flowers.
The volume of traffic there is huge, as the intersection sits near Interstate 93, and drivers are a prime captive audience.
The stoplight also abuts the Woods Mullen Shelter, a 190-bed emergency shelter run by the Boston Public Health Commission. The shelter offers food, emergency clothing, healthcare, and case management services to anyone in need and is open 24 hours a day.
Many of the panhandlers yesterday said they are shelter regulars who view panhandling as a right as well as a job.
Joseph Warren identified himself as a "captain" among a team of auto window washers, or squeegee men, who work at the intersection.
He's there seven days a week, about four hours a day. He's been doing it so long he has "regular customers," he said.
"The motorists love me," he said yesterday, as he stood chatting with several homeless friends on the sidewalk. "I leave not a drop of wetness and do a very professional job."
The 48-year-old Dorchester native said he's been arrested six times in the past decade for aggressive panhandling and window washing.
He said that each time, the charge has been dismissed, but he usually ends up staying in jail for an extended time. Estranged from his family, no one will pay his $25 bail.
He recalled spending a 60-day stint in jail on a panhandling charge two years ago.
Warren said he sprinted over two chain-link fences last week when a police cruiser approached the intersection. In his absence, the police officer confiscated his car-cleaning supplies, as well as his backpack that contained toiletries and clothes.
"I just don't think that's fair," he said. "We're all in fear."
Lynda Harrington, one of the few women who panhandles at the South End intersection, walked among the cars, holding out a Dunkin' Donuts paper cup and looking drivers in the eye while asking for money. Her style was more forward than others who walked among the cars waiting for people to offer dollar bills. She trolled for 15 minutes at a time without receiving any donations.
She said she doesn't understand why police try to stop panhandlers, saying that she could be doing something illegal, like prostitution.
"I don't find myself that depraved to sell my body," she said. "I get some money, I get a cigarette and something to eat."
Several street people asking for money yesterday refused to give their names, saying they feared retribution by police.
They also said the number of panhandlers has grown and that the increased competition has led some to push harder for donations.
When police run Harrington off, she said she usually waits for the next shift of officers to go on duty and heads back to work.