Editor’s note: At its Sept. 20, 2010 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council reappointed a downtown street outreach task force – aka the “panhandling task force” – which had existed in the early 2000s. The current group’s charge is to work for no longer than six months to identify cost-effective ways to achieve better enforcement of the city’s ordinance against panhandling, and to provide help to panhandlers who are addicted to drugs.
Now that the task force is roughly halfway through that six-month period, The Chronicle attended its December meeting to check in on the group’s work.
You buy local, think global, pay it forward, recycle. You’re a good person.
So how do you respond to a panhandler? Is opening your wallet helping someone in need? Or is it enabling an addiction? Can you look the other way and still consider yourself compassionate?
At the Dec. 15 meeting of the city’s panhandling task force, three paid consultants gave their perspective on the issue – as panhandlers. Geoffrey Scott said he enjoys talking to the people almost as much as he appreciates the money they give him.
But one member of the city’s panhandling task force says people don’t realize the damage they do in the name of kindness.
“Unfortunately, panhandling hurts a delicate economy, which is like a delicate ecosystem,” says Brian Durrance, secretary of MISSION, which supports people who are homeless in Ann Arbor. “And if you have an invasive species that comes in and damages it, it will be altered. Ann Arbor survives because it’s an attractive place for people to come who have money and are willing to spend it. And as they’re spending that money, they are being taxed. And that money is used to help people of all kinds. Panhandlers are not contributing to that system, and particularly the aggressive ones are destructive.”
That’s because it takes some extra effort to get downtown, says Durrance. And merchants spend a lot of money trying to get people there. And if people are put off by aggressive panhandlers, they’ll go elsewhere.
The three panhandlers who spoke at the task force’s December meeting were each paid $20 – or about what they might have collected on the streets during that time.
When task force members learned that Durrance had paid the three out of his own pocket, they pitched in to reimburse him, cheerfully calling it “another example of panhandling.” That line settled well with Tate Williams, who after the meeting said we’re all panhandlers from time to time.
“The word panhandling is thrown out there to keep people in a different class,”said Williams, co-founder and resident of a tent community in Ann Arbor called Camp Take Notice. “I can guarantee that over half of that room has solicited the private sector for campaign funds. They asked people for money; i.e., panhandling. Other people there have written grants asking other entities for money; i.e., panhandling. And everyone has opened their wallet at lunchtime and said, ‘Oh, I’m a buck short … Got a buck?’”
Still, Williams agrees that aggressive panhandling is a serious issue that can scare visitors and deter commerce. Particularly problematic are the aggressive younger panhandlers who come to Ann Arbor during the summer.
Geoffrey Scott was the most vocal of the three panhandlers who spoke at the meeting. Scott, who says his drinking has made a mess of his life, lives in a parking structure and panhandles all day long, mostly at the corner of State and Liberty. ”I specifically say I need a quarter for the bus,” says Scott, who contends he does not act aggressively. “After you’ve talked to 200 people, you have the money you need.”
Among Scott’s observations:
- Panhandlers come to Ann Arbor because there is money here, and because it’s home to a bunch of rich college kids with soft hearts, and because it’s known to be a liberal city with plenty of support services for the needy.
- The money he makes is not used for food. “If you don’t know how to find food in Ann Arbor, something’s wrong with you … No one’s hungry.”
- The best money is made on expressway ramps.
- You’ll make a lot more money if you say you’re a Vietnam vet. Scott is not a veteran in that sense. “I say I’m a street vet,” he says. “That’s true.”
- The colder you look, the more money you make. “If you can cry, all the better.”
- Some panhandlers choose it as a profession. Others feed drug addictions.
Durrance says every panhandler he’s ever met has been mentally ill.
“We find that most of the panhandlers are suffering from one kind of drug addiction or another, and underneath all of that is a mental illness problem which is not being dealt with,” he says. “So they started with a mental illness that is not being dealt with. They self-medicate. They’ve developed addictions. And they are surviving in the way anyone would survive – by doing what they can do. And panhandling is one of the ways they survive.”
Durrance says the best way to help panhandlers is not to give them cash, but to help them get needed mental health services, which should be a higher priority at the federal level.
People need to know that Ann Arbor is rich in social services, so that panhandlers’ shelter, clothing, and food needs are already met, Durrance says.
He thinks the merchants themselves should be the educators, and the city should try to support those merchants. They could pass out cards listing the food and shelter help available, put up signs in their windows, collect money to help provide services for those in need, use the media to help educate students.
This past summer, Boise, Idaho launched a program called “Have a Heart, Give Smart,” using posters and leaflets to encourage people to donate to charity rather than panhandlers. Panhandling was down 10% within a few months.
Some may wonder why it’s wrong for one person to ask another person for spare change. Durrance explains it this way: When a street musician performs for tips, he’s offering something in return. The merchants, too, are paying into the tax system, which supports services for everyone. ”Panhandlers are not offering anything in return,” he says. “They’re simply taking.”
It’s wrong to assume that the homeless are panhandlers, he says, noting that most homeless people are just trying to quietly get by. They come to Ann Arbor for its excellent social services, but they’re more likely to collect cans than ask for handouts.
The problem isn’t so much evident in the fall and winter as in the spring and summer, when transient young people move here for a while, says Peter Ludt, general manager of Espresso Royale and a board member of the State Street Area Association. Ludt also serves on the panhandling task force.
The kids panhandle on State Street and on the Diag, often aggressively, and get involved in drinking and drugs. They would take over Espresso Royale’s outdoor café on South State Street, soliciting money from people walking by, and use the bathroom, leaving bottles and drug paraphernalia.
At one point last summer, Ludt began locking the bathrooms.
“In the spring and summer, you can’t walk from one end of State Street to the other without being solicited several times,” he says. “Customers have said they don’t feel comfortable walking down State Street. And that’s a problem for the city of Ann Arbor when citizens or students or visitors don’t feel comfortable walking down a street.”
Ludt agrees that the task force needs to educate both the panhandlers about the social services available to them, and the public – especially college students – about the reasons to not hand out money. ”It’s a cycle,” he says, referring to the alcohol and other drugs that panhandlers buy with the money they’re given. “People who think they’re helping panhandlers are really just hurting them further.”
First Ward city council representative Sabra Briere, who chairs the task force, says the city’s 2003 panhandling ordinance specifically targets those standing in certain locations, or who are aggressive. It doesn’t target everyone asking for a hand-out. From the city’s ordinance:
Except as otherwise provided in Chapters 79 and 81 of this Code, it shall be unlawful for any person to solicit the immediate payment of money or goods from another person, whether or not in exchange for goods, services, or other consideration, under any of the following circumstances:
1. On private property, except as otherwise permitted by Chapters 79 and 81, unless the solicitor has permission from the owner or occupant;
2. In any public transportation vehicle or public transportation facility;
3. In any public parking structure and within 12 feet of any entrance or exit to any public parking structure;
4. From a person who is in any vehicle on the street;
5. By obstructing the free passage of pedestrian or vehicle traffic;
6. Within 12 feet of a bank or automated teller machine;
7. By moving to within 2 feet of the person solicited, unless that person has indicated that he/she wishes to be solicited;
8. By following and continuing to solicit a person who walks away from the solicitor;
9. By knowingly making a false or misleading representation in the course of a solicitation;
10. In a manner that appears likely to cause a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities to feel intimidated, threatened or harassed;
11. Within 12 feet of the entrance to or exit from the Nickels Arcade, located between State Street and Maynard Street; the Galleria, located between S. University and the Forest Street parking structure; and the Pratt Building, located between Main Street and the Ashley parking lot; or
12. From a person who is a patron at any outdoor cafe or restaurant.
Because budget cuts have cut down on the number of police officers walking the streets downtown, merchants and residents have begun complaining more about panhandlers. Briere said it’s clear the task force can’t put more police on the streets – which is what merchants on the task force originally wanted. There’s a push to get more residents downtown, which requires making them feel safe and comfortable there.
“If we can’t do it by having a strong police presence because of budget issues, then we have to come up with some other way,” she says.
Members of the task force were selected to represent different parts of the community. In addition to Durrance, Ludt and Briere, members include Raymond Detter, Maggie Ladd, Susan Pollay, Mary Jo Callan, Charles Coleman, Paul Sher, Maura Thomson, Barnett Jones and Mary Campbell.
Briere hopes the task force will somehow ensure the panhandlers’ basic needs are met and educate people that giving money to panhandlers does not solve poverty or help them get back on their feet.
“It’s tough to figure out how to meet the needs of people who frankly don’t want their needs met,” Briere says. “It’s easy for us to think we’re all doing enough. It’s easy to fear that if we do too much, we’ll become a magnet for people seeking support. I don’t have any good solutions. We’re just trying to work on ways to treat people humanely in our community.”
How does Briere react to panhandlers?
“I’ve done a number of things, like everybody else,” she says. “I once gave a panhandler my yogurt. It depends on the panhandler. The guy people call Crutchy – I’ve been known to give him a quarter. I’ve also been known to say no when approached by people I don’t know. I’ve pointed people to help.”
Doesn’t that quarter contradict her advice? “I’m not noble,” she says. “I’m human.”
About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.