No easy solution to panhandling

By and

Panhandlers hang out in high-traffic areas. Be it the 1300 East exit off I-80, the northeast corner of Temple Square or somewhere along the TRAX line, they wait and shame you into surrendering your pocket change. It’s not illegal. In fact, panhandlers are simply exercising their right of free speech, but the city wants to shut panhandlers down.

In a Homeless Summit conference earlier this month, city leaders unveiled the End Panhandling in Utah program. Because they are asking for a free handout, it is assumed that panhandlers are homeless. The Downtown Alliance said homeless shelter resources are strained by 14 percent of the tenants who use 64 percent of the beds. These people stay for six months or more and are considered chronically homeless.

It is estimated that 15,525 people will experience homelessness in Utah in 2009, an increase of 8 percent since last year, according to a report from the Utah Department of Community and Culture. It isn’t as though the government isn’t doing anything to help people hurt by the recession get back on their feet. As part of the stimulus bill or American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, $1.5 billion dollars was allocated to a Homeless Prevention Fund, and Utah got $8.4 million. The fund is intended to help those between paychecks cover rent and mortgage payments so they don’t lose their homes.

“Most panhandlers have places to live and frequently use the money they are given to fuel chemical addictions and other self-destructive behaviors,” said Jason Mathis, executive director of Downtown Alliance.

Interestingly, the city’s push to end panhandling probably won’t accomplish the goal. It’s highly unlikely that people who beg for money will be thrown in jail or deterred from asking for free money. The fact that they are begging shows they probably lack the incentive or ability to pursue a more productive means to provide for themselves and frankly wouldn’t care about being thrown in jail for a few days. They’d appreciate the free meals.

It’s more likely that the city’s purpose is to educate those who feel intimidated into giving their pocket change to a panhandler. Rather than feel the obligation to give because someone’s hand is in your face, give that money to an organization that will help people who are really in need. If panhandlers are sincerely in need and want to pull themselves out of homelessness, they are well aware of the resources available to help them.

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