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Dallas Morning News

 

The Plague of Professional Panhandling

August 26, 2008

By Steven Malanga

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Barbara Bradley, an editor with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, moved into the River City's reviving downtown about a year and a half ago, loving its "energy and enthusiasm." But a horde of invading panhandlers has cooled her enjoyment of city life.

Earlier this year, she recalled in a recent column, as she showed some visitors around the neighborhood, "a big panhandler blocked the entrance to our parking area and demanded his toll." Now she avoids certain downtown areas, locks her car when fueling up at local gas stations, and parks strategically, so that she can see beggars coming before getting out of her car.

"When I hear someone call out 'ma'am, ma'am' anywhere in downtown or midtown, I run."She's not alone. Cities have overcome myriad obstacles in revitalizing their downtowns, from lousy transportation systems to tough competition from suburban shopping malls. But they face a new wave of "spangers" (that is, spare-change artists) who threaten their newfound prosperity by harassing residents, tourists and businesses.

Unlike their predecessors in the '70s and '80s, many of these new beggars aren't helpless victims or even homeless. Rather, they belong to a diverse and swelling community of street people who have made panhandling their calling.

Like most countries, America has always had its share of itinerant travelers, vagabonds and hoboes. But panhandling became a more pervasive and disturbing fact of urban life in the 1970s � a byproduct of the explosion in homelessness that resulted from rising drug use and the closing of state-run mental institutions.

By the crack epidemic's late-'80s peak, New York City in particular was home to a massive panhandling presence. The problem soon turned from irritating to alarming, as incidents of aggressive panhandling leading to violent crime began showing up regularly in the headlines.

The escalation � and other cities faced it, too � shouldn't have been surprising.

"If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passers-by ... it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if a mugging actually takes place," wrote political scientist James Q. Wilson.

New York, fed up with the disorder, began to crack down on panhandling in the early '90s. Its success prompted other cities to follow suit � adopting community courts, forcing beggars to register for licenses (which discouraged them) and passing new anti-panhandling laws. These measures helped spark new development and interest in downtown districts across the country.

But over the last several years, the urban resurgence has proved an irresistible draw to a new generation of spangers. Panhandling is epidemic in many places � from cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Memphis, Orlando and Albuquerque to smaller college towns like Berkeley.

A big part of the cities' woes is the professionalization of panhandling. The old type of panhandler � a mentally impaired or disabled homeless person trying to scrape together a few bucks for a meal � is giving way to the full-time spanger who supports himself through a combination of begging, working at odd jobs and other sources, like government assistance from disability payments.

Some full-time panhandlers are kids � "road warriors" who have largely dropped out of society and drift from town to town, often "couch surfing" at friends' homes, or "street loiterers" who daily make their way downtown from the suburbs where they live.

People's generosity encourages the begging.

About four out of 10 Denver residents gave to panhandlers, city officials determined several years ago, anteing up an estimated $4.6 million a year. Anecdotal surveys by journalists and police officers, and even testimony by panhandlers themselves, suggest that begging can yield anywhere from $20 to $100 a day � though police in Coos Bay, Ore., found that local panhandlers were taking in as much as $300 a day in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

"A panhandler could make 30 to 40,000 dollars a year, tax-free money," New York spanger Steve Baker said.

In Memphis, a local Fox News reporter, Jason Carter, donned old clothes and hit the streets this year, earning about $10 an hour. "Just the quasi-appearance of being homeless filled my cup," Mr. Carter observed. That all the money is beyond the tax man's clutches adds to the allure of professional panhandling.

Mr. Carter prepared for his stint on the street by surfing the Internet, where a variety of Web sites dispense panhandling advice. NeedCom, for example � subtitled "Market Research for Panhandlers" � offers tips from Mr. Baker and other pros on how to hustle. The Web site's developer, Cathy Davies, wants it to get people "thinking about panhandling as a realistic economic activity, rather than thinking that panhandlers are lazy or don't work very hard."

The rise of online panhandling advice helps explain why panhandlers and "sign flyers" � beggars who use signs to solicit donations � exhibit remarkably similar methods around the country. Currently, the direct, humorous approach is in vogue. That's why in many cities today you'll hear some version of: "I won't lie to you, I need a drink."

Panhandlers also report that asking for specific amounts of money lends credibility to pitches. "I need 43 more cents to get a cup of coffee," a panhandler will declare; some people will give exactly that much, while others will simply hand over a buck.

If it seems unlikely that a homeless person would surf the Web for advice on how to panhandle, that's exactly the point: Many aren't homeless and are lying about their circumstances.

Like their counterparts back in the '80s, some spangers refuse to take no for an answer. Aggressive begging has grown so common in Memphis that a group of residents, members of an online forum called Handling-Panhandling, have begun photographing those who act in a threatening manner, seeking to help police catch those who violate the law.

Reports of aggressive panhandling are on the increase in many cities. A pizzeria manager in Columbus, Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch this year that panhandlers were entering the store asking for money, then following women back to their cars to scare them into giving it. In Orlando, panhandlers have started entering downtown offices and asking receptionists for money, prompting businesses to lock the doors. San Francisco police have identified 39 beggars who have received five or more citations for aggressive panhandling, racking up a total of 447 citations.

Widespread begging bears much of the blame for lingering public impressions that downtowns remain unsafe.

Downtown business owners in Nashville now rank panhandling as their No. 1 problem. In St. Louis, another city battling perceptions that it's dangerous, two-thirds of respondents to an online poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said they'd encountered aggressive panhandling. In Austin, the police chief noted last August that more than a third of the people killed in traffic accidents that year had been cited for begging in the past.

Confronting the new panhandling plague, many cities have been hamstrung by local factors that have made it hard to attack the problem in the aggressive, enforcement-driven New York style. Some places, for instance, never transformed their police forces to emphasize quality-of-life crime and the importance of the cop on the beat. Certain states, such as California, prohibit community courts for misdemeanors. And sometimes a city's political tradition is so liberal that the notion of cracking down at all is anathema.

Still, some locales are experimenting with innovative ways to curb panhandling. Orlando allows begging only in "panhandling zones," demarcated by blue boxes painted on the sidewalks in several locations.

Denver's anti-panhandling initiative seems particularly promising. The city has turned 86 old, unused parking meters into donation boxes and placed them around downtown. The meters allow people to give directly on the street, where they're likely to encounter panhandlers, assuring donors that their money will go to programs to assist the truly needy.

Between donations and corporate sponsorship, the meter program is generating about $100,000 a year, distributed to local groups to provide housing, job training and other services, says Jamie Van Leeuwen, head of the city's homelessness-combating Road Home program. The meter initiative is also deterring spanging � the city estimates that it's down a striking 90 percent.

Several cities and smaller communities have banned motorists from giving to beggars, framing the legislation as safety ordinances. Courts have also upheld laws that prohibit beggars from touching people without their consent, intentionally blocking their path and using obscene or abusive language.

Yet even as cities experiment with new approaches, those traditionally opposed to restrictions on panhandling are fighting back � notably, civil liberties groups and some homeless advocates, who oppose any actions that might criminalize conduct by even a minority of the homeless.

In 2003, San Francisco residents overwhelmingly passed a ballot proposition authored by then-Supervisor (now Mayor) Gavin Newsom, outlawing in-your-face panhandling. But the ordinance has been ineffective because scores of volunteer lawyers, many from the city's biggest law firms, have fought every citation.

People cited for panhandling don't even need to appear in court. They simply drop their citations in boxes at various advocacy groups, and the lawyers pick them up and appear in court, where judges have ruled that cops must file lengthy reports in order to get a conviction. The courts are dismissing about 85 percent of all tickets handed out under the ordinance.

Such battles between civil libertarians and those who want to limit panhandling remain common. Austin civil rights advocates got the city's ban on panhandling along roadsides overturned; the court ruled that the city hadn't adequately demonstrated that panhandling was a safety issue.

But there's no doubt that some cities have been more effective than others at building anti-panhandling campaigns.

"I recently visited New York City and was shocked to discover that for a city with 10 times our population, it has one-tenth as many beggars," one San Franciscan wrote on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site.

"The few I did see sat silently with their signs and said nothing. I didn't witness a single instance of aggressive panhandling. The reason for this? The city passed laws against such conduct and has enforced those laws. If it can work over there, it can work here."

Steven Malanga is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a senior editor of City Journal, where a longer version of this essay appears.

Original Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-malanga_24edi.ART0.State.Edition1.4dac4e2.html

 

 
 
 

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