An antidote to panhandling

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July 19, 2010
By: Katherine Lymn
Katherine Lymn
// 'Give Real Change' urges people to donate to charities rather than panhandlers //

Jeff Smith does it to help pay for medications he needs for physical and mental sicknesses. Kevin Smith does it to avoid resorting to thievery.

And despite the reasoning behind it, the panhandling Jeff and Kevin do to solve their problems is an increasingly prominent problem two Minneapolis organizations have teamed up to stop.

This time, however, the city is focusing on the passersby who give money to people like Jeff and Kevin.

Since mid-June, the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID) and Heading Home Hennepin have been teaming up for Give Real Change, a campaign that promotes volunteering one’s time to help the poor instead of giving them pocket change. Volunteering time and resources to organizations such as theirs, they say, promotes the “real change” these panhandlers need.

Other partners involved in the campaign include the Family Housing Fund, St. Stephen’s Human Services, City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin County.

Giving a panhandler “a dollar out of your car window” is an unsustainable solution, even though “it might make you feel good for a minute,” said Cathy ten Broeke, the Minneapolis-Hennepin County Coordinator to End Homelessness.

Ten Broeke said that a recent survey of panhandlers found that most people who ask for money on the street find it to be a “very demeaning and demoralizing thing” to do.

Meanwhile, panhandler Jeff Smith said while organizations do good long-term work, individuals like him need help faster for food or medication. “A lot of the people who panhandle need pretty much a little something right now,” he said.

Since the state stopped paying him Social Security and disability checks last winter, Jeff Smith has been making $10 to $25 a day panhandling. Some days, he doesn’t make anything at all.

For Kevin Smith, 59, panhandling isn’t about just asking for change. It’s a chance to both spread word of his Catholicism to others, and make the money he needs to live day-to-day. Outside of the Nicollet Mall Target store, he gives verbal blessings while asking for money from passersby.

The services provided by groups like Heading Home Hennepin simply don’t do the trick for him, he said. In a job set up for him by the Courage Center, he was subject to menial labor in a cubicle, so he stopped working. He said he hasn’t held a steady job since 1987.

Characterizing the campaign as more “pro-solution” than “anti-panhandling,” ten Broeke said organizers of the campaign are getting the word out through posters on Nicollet Mall and flyers handed out by DID ambassadors. Businesses in the area also received materials reminding them of the hazards of giving money to panhandlers.

For the DID, the main goal of the campaign is to improve the appearance of Downtown and to make visitors feel more comfortable.

“It’s a win-win if we can help people in a meaningful way and strengthen our business community at the same time,” said Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the DID, in a statement about the campaign.

Surveys done by both the Downtown Council and the DID in the past three years showed panhandling was the number one reason downtown employees and residents felt unsafe, Harris said.

These formal surveys, along with anecdotal feedback from business owners, fueled the fight against panhandling.

The goals of the campaign mirror those of Heading Home Hennepin and the DID.  “Both of our missions will be well served by putting an end to the panhandling downtown,” Harris said.

Surveys done by the group show that people are deterred to come Downtown because of the presence of panhandlers, ten Broeke said.

Businesses and restaurants along Nicollet Mall, in particular, have complained about losing business.

Shane Higgins, general manager of Brit’s Pub, said the presence of the DID officers has certainly helped with the panhandling and loitering problem.

Nevertheless, with part of the restaurant’s seating on a patio in Nicollet Mall, “even if you just have one incident, then it still makes for a bad dining experience,” he said.

In 2007, the City of Minneapolis approved an ordinance designed to fight aggressive panhandling.

Under the ordinance, it is illegal for people to panhandle in several places in the city, including within 10 feet of a crosswalk; on parkland, playgrounds or a public entertainment venue; near a gas station, liquor store or convenience store; or within 80 feet of an ATM or financial institution. It also bans panhandling in a group of two or more and after sunset or before sunrise.