Ann Arbor Task Force Consults Panhandlers

Street outreach members now midway through their work

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.

The sum of one panhandler's afternoon collection on Dec. 31, 2010 on the sidewalk next to Border's Bookstore on East Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photo by Dave Askins.)

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:

9:70. Solicitation.
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.


  1. By Chaely
    January 1, 2011 at 4:11 am | permalink

    I like the idea of promoting more constructive ways of impacting that community. I think people should be encouraged to donate specifically to the Shelter Association & other groups who would provide services to the types of people who are panhandling. Educating the public could go a long way here. I’m glad this is finally being addressed.

  2. By Frank McGillicutty
    January 1, 2011 at 11:51 am | permalink

    Here’s the ONLY THING that will stop this crime called “panhandling” in Any town, USA (yes even Ann Arbor).

    You see a panhandler. This is the typical exchange that MUST BE STOPPED.

    Panhandler A opens with “I’m out of gas, in town with no food, can you spare a dollar?”


    “Dude, I don’t have any money, why are you asking me for money – dude, that’s called PANHANDLING and I’m going to call the police right now. What is your name?”

    Don’t debate ANYTHING with a panhandler – “they know what they’re doing, and they know it’s a crime”. Call the Police everytime when you’re approached and ask the pan handler their name and remind them they’re breaking the law!!!

    The A2 Police are well informed in “how to respond to a panhander case” let the police do their job.

    My next comment is on all the panhandlers going into my backyard looking for “pop bottle returns”. These guys are the most VIOLENT and this practice of “roaming driveways and yards” for bottles returns. My back porch is not “fair game” to the panhandler’s “theft work” of taking my bottles and cans. The A2 Police watch these guys do this pushing their shopping baskets up and down Huron going in and out of driveways during the middle of the day. I’m sick and tired of jumping out my house confronting these VIOLENT individuals, and when the police are called they relay to you “Get that person’s name” – Right, while he’s unloading a right hand on me. Sure, I’ll get his name too.”

    This A2 Police leniency in Panhandling now is “what it is”. Thank A2 Police for the lousy enforcement in letting these individuals, camp, steal, beg, roam driveways up and down Huron Street, hang out at the expressways….”


  3. By Stupid Hick
    January 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    I was intrigued by the claim that the Boise program reduced panhandling by 10%. How did they measure that, I wondered.

    I followed the link to the ‘Have a Heart’ site, offered in the Ann Arbor Chronicle article, but couldn’t find any claims about the effectiveness of their program. So I decided to do some of my own amateur investigative journalism:

    Using google, I found a December 1, 2010 ‘Boise Weekly’ article, titled ‘Boise Expands Effort to Deny Panhandlers’. The story quoted the mayor’s assistant, who said police told her that panhandling complaints at ONE specific grocery store decreased by ‘at least 10 percent’.

    Is that the basis for the Chronicle’s statement about the efficacy of Boise’s campaign, or is there unsourced data that I haven’t yet been able to find?

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 3, 2011 at 6:47 am | permalink

    “invasive species”?

  5. By Rod Johnson
    January 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm | permalink

    Gosh, Frank, at first I thought that was just a crazy rant, but putting that last paragraph in all caps really convinced me.

  6. By johnboy
    January 3, 2011 at 5:13 pm | permalink

    Public begging (Let’s call it what it is)is like prostitution. It has been around since the beginning of human society and it will always be with us. Get used to it. Just say NO!

  7. By Frank McGullicutty
    January 4, 2011 at 8:08 am | permalink

    Rod please listen to and be open to all Ann Arbors tax paying citizen’s pleas here concerning panhandling, which is about a “inch” away from bullying a counterpart or next step, playing a con on a innocent A2 bystander. Sure I used a couple of caps, but the rant was to demonstrate the seriousness and the fervor of the A2 Citizens to band together and petition A2 City Consul to stop wasting our cash supporting the “panhandling opposition”. Everything that was published is very true in A2 Citizens call for action on this issue – even when you get right down to a face off with a thug, with a fully loaded backpack, going through your back yard – saying “I was only looking for bottles man!”

    Obviously you don’t really own property in Ann Arbor. If you did, as a majority of us would vote/approve on, yes we want our property to appreciate inside the city limits of A2. Right now A2 is like 30 or 40 on the best places to raise your kids in the US. I agree with you Rod, let’s make it worse.

    Rod you offer nothing to this issue, no solutions, except a chance for plea of reason that someone will notice and step up to end this panhandling “exchange allowed by the current city police administration.

    A2 City Consul is lost in “analysis paralysis” whereby they are now “paying” homeless folks for their indignent ways and working a way to promote their tax free lifestyle – this is a serious blow to the entire A2 tax payer base – and yes soon even you will be asking for money on the streets because A2 ordinances now state that it is “acceptable in some fashions”.

    Long term A2 society and community regrets that you’ve made the assumption that a concerned citizen who only intent is to live peacefully, without warrant to pilfer from others, is crazy.

    Frankly (pardon the pun) being very serious, you’ll have to look at (or past) yourself first to determine really who is the crazy one Mr. Johnson. You’ve convinced me based on your rhetoric you like having hobo conflict in your life everyday. A2 property owning citizens here don’t like it one bit.

    A2 Citizens see the “let’s get the Hobo Party started” A2 Consul compicity – in the long term will be one of the many starters of low level crime that will consume the creativity and beauty of downtown A2 in the spring, in the summer or fall.

    What is your solution to this panhandling mess A2 Citizens have to contend with everyday? Kill the messenger?

  8. By Eric Wucherer
    January 4, 2011 at 9:42 pm | permalink

    Frank, Rod typed one sentence, and I mean no offense to Rod when I note that it did not contain a substantial amount of rhetoric. I’d like to think his point was more in this spirit: That you should argue thoughtfully and succinctly, lest people think you are just crying “wolf”.

  9. January 4, 2011 at 10:13 pm | permalink

    It is also considered rude to use all capitals when writing comments and I think Rod was trying to indicate that in a nonjudgmental, humorous way.

    What I’m picking up from Frank is that he is talking about a different problem than the task force was. They seemed to be concentrating on downtown panhandlers. He seems to be talking about people who are invading personal property in people’s home territories. That does indeed sound scary and if it is happening I hope that the police are responsive.

    This article and discussion were useful to highlight some issues and I thought that hiring panhandlers to talk about their lives was a creative approach.

  10. By Rod Johnson
    January 4, 2011 at 11:17 pm | permalink

    Let’s say judgmental and humorous. And again, Frank, your rhetoric continues to be a little over…fervid. My reaction to your tone implies nothing whatsoever about my positions, if any, regarding panhandling. Your arguments don’t become compelling just because you clothe them in a lot of MUSTs and emotionally loaded language (“thug”). I get that you’re feeling threatened and I sympathize, but your emotions are not a basis for public policy decisions.

    I think Vivienne is right to point out that your backyard encounter isn’t panhandling. (I’m not trying to minimize the awfulness of it by saying that.) It feels like you’re conflating homeless people (“hoboes”), threatening people (“thugs”) and panhandlers into one big uber-scary mass problem, but is that really valid? You can’t just dismiss the need for clarity as “analysis paralysis.” There’s a little bit of “ready, fire, aim!” going on there.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go have some hobo conflict. Whee!

  11. By Pamela
    January 5, 2011 at 11:46 am | permalink

    I wish there had been a list of those local aid agencies printed with the article so many of us would have something to refer them to. I work downtown so many of them catch me every single day. I’ve started getting names (from the police usually) and at least about 10% of the time, after addressing them by name a few times politely, they’ve stopped asking me for money and just wish me a nice day. Others are still aggressive. These I now ignore or avoid.

    If I show you courtesy and you don’t give it back, than I share nothing. The ones who do show me courtesy I will buy lunch when I can afford it (I refuse to ever give cash, that can be given to agencies where you are 100% assured it will not go toward drugs or alcohol. Their appreciative, polite, and still don’t bother me, I help them my way when it’s my choice.

  12. By Frank McGillicutty
    January 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm | permalink

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of Ann Arbor who are actually concerned about panhandling (daily hobo conficts).

    Allow me to explain my position. I’m offended when I’m approached by individuals who try to panhandle from me in our beautiful town here. It’s not an honest method of acquiring daily needs (cigs, alcohol, drugs, candy, food, clothes, roof over the head….anything). I’m not inferring people who ask for money are really out to buy clothes or a roof over their head. That very well could be the case.

    There are many citizens in A2 who condone panhandling, now the A2 Consul has become involved, A2 Policing polices, and now I know where the problem is, we’re all promoting it. Even me.

    My apologies for “piling on” but there isn’t really much talk of any solutions to the actual A2 panhandling problem, merely shoot down any positive talk for real change, and in doing that it will make this negative aspect of going for nice enjoyable walk downtown, now I feel worse, since there isn’t any way to make it better.

    A2′s Panhandling Commission is a wolf in sheeps clothing. Can anyone tell me how having panhandlers on city payrolls, camp free (trash out an area e.g I-94/Jackson Ave), who ask others for cash everywhere not just down town. In a majority of these exhanges, the receiver feels very uncomforatable, where it’s a nusiance and a bother. All I want from a friend I don’t know is nothing more friendship or a friendly “hows it goin”.

    The question is:

    Who is responsible for making this right? In our world, it has to be “us” the citizens to form a front and create a negative response at the first instance of this crime. The police are never around at the time of the event, why because there would not be a hobo conflict with Ms. Police woman standing with in 50 feet – DUH.

    The A2 panhandling “legal” solution:

    Please see my first message. Calling all A2 citizens against the panhanders movement to meet downtown on Saturday, January 8th, at 12:00 noon Main Street/Liberty. A flash mob has already been planned with notices ready. We all be better prepared with more confidence, we’ll stick together, start addressing anyone who panhandles in a more appropriate and civilized manner. Yes the wheeee’s are going to be cleaning up da the hobo corps. Next up, active citizens against weekly panhandling maintenance patrol as long as it’s needed, then put that in to low maintenace mode.

    See you at Main / Liberty Saturday at 12:00 noon. We ask for nothing more than your support.

  13. By Sabra Briere
    January 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor Alternatives: Real Help for Those in Need
    a message from the street outreach committee [called the panhandling committee]

    Ann Arbor is a generous community, and strives to provide options for all – especially those in need. Our community supports a broad range of free services to those who are homeless or experiencing economic hardship. This abbreviated list of resources list those which provide immediate help to those in need.

    Panhandling is almost always symptom of a greater need, regardless of how a situation is represented.

    Free Meals in Ann Arbor
    Food Gatherers Community Kitchen @ the Delonis Center – 312 W. Huron Street, Ann Arbor
    12noon Lunch & 5pm Dinner weekdays
    3pm Dinner on weekends
    St. Andrews Breakfast – 306 N Division St Ann Arbor
    7:30am Breakfast everyday
    Saturday Bag Lunch
    Additional Meals throughout Ypsilanti – call 211 for information

    SOS Community Services Housing Crisis Line 484-4300
    The Delonis Center
    312 W. Huron Street, Ann Arbor 662-2829
    Project Outreach (PORT)
    110 North Fourth, Ann Arbor 222-3750
    The Salvation Army’s Staples Center
    3660 Packard Rd., Ann Arbor 761-7750
    Ozone House (for youth ages 10-20)
    1705 Washtenaw Ave, Ann Arbor 662-2222

    Sobriety Help
    Dawn Farm Street Outreach 485-8725
    Home of New Vision 975-1602

    For Other Help
    Call 211
    For Emergencies
    Call 911

  14. By Kerrytown Taxpayer
    January 5, 2011 at 10:28 pm | permalink

    Living downtown in A2 is a great thing for many obvious reasons.

    The downside…

    Heading to work at 0630, I’ve had a panhandler plying his trade call out to me from out front of Zingermans. Not stop me and ask, but call out, loudly, across the intersection of Detroit and Kingsley. Sometimes I wonder what the dozing neighbors thought of the gentle exchange that followed.

    In warmer weather, walking to various shops, venues and services downtown, I’m met with a barrage of the regular panhandlers, for some reason they haven’t yet recognized me as a member of the non-enabling crowd. Crutch-man, the Pope, limping lady, and the “professional” that hangs out in front of the Co-op. I call him professional as it appears to me he’s panhandling for a “homeless cause” other than himself. In cooler weather, just the professional remains.

    None of them frightens me, except “the outsiders”. These are the out-of-place thugs who show up for a few weekends a year… looking for easy marks, panhandling is their front as they observe the behavior of passing humanity. Cross on the other side of the street from these guys.

    I agree with the Idaho approach, but a 10% reduction isn’t enough. What can we do to multiply that effect?

    I’ve also heard of an approach where strategic support meters ( like parking meters ) are placed around town and people are encouraged to donate to causes such as the one’s Ms. Briere suggests through the meters instead of handing Crutch-man a quarter. This might help as well.

    Finally, Mr. McGillicutty above is not alone in his experience of scavengers dumpster diving in his backyard. Often there are individuals casually disregarding our NO TRESPASSING sign and strolling deep into our back lot and diving into the trash as they scavenge.

    Ms. Armentrout, for the children that live here, I am certain it is scary to have strangers wandering back into an area they should consider part of their PRIVATE home. For me, it just pisses me off that there is no disincentive to the anti-social behavior.

  15. January 5, 2011 at 11:48 pm | permalink

    I’ve spent a lot of time working with and studying the homeless… which is the equivalent of studying “Americans” or some other meaningless group containing a ridiculously high amount of cultures. Some people are dealing with a crazy incident, fallen in hard times, and actively trying to get back on their feet. Some have mental “issues.” Some people have chosen to disengage from society. Some really odd people panhandle because they make decent money (though this is quite rare).

    Whatever the reason, whatever your thoughts on the subject, the fact of the matter is that being homeless is not criminal. It does not make you a criminal. In many jurisdictions, going through trash is not considered trespassing (unless completely fenced, etc).

    I’m not a fan of giving money to panhandlers. I’ll engage… ask them what they want the money for. Most will tell you to get food. The real test is to offer to come back with a sandwich and see what they say. Ask what they think of the food at the kitchen? Some have told me flat out that they want a beer… I’ve respected the honesty… sometimes even going and returning with some. ;)

    Bottom line is that homeless is not a crime. The homeless and panhandlers are not the same thing either.

    Panhandlers are visible in areas where the community will support panhandlers… which is why you see many more panhandlers in college towns… college students by in large tend to be quite generous to panhandlers.

    If you want to stop panhandling, you need to modify culture. But first is to make sure you’re separating homeless from panhandlers.

  16. By Rod Johnson
    January 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm | permalink

    How’d the flash mob go?

  17. January 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm | permalink

    Another factor here is that the courts have held that you cannot ban panhandling. Asking for money is a form of speech, and we have a fine American tradition of protecting free speech.

    That said, you can regulate panhandling, as the A2 ordinance does.

    Royal Oak is currently facing legal challenges to their anti-panhandling ordinance.