Saturday, February 25, 2017

How Roanoke Should Deal with Panhandlers

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had a lot of people in the community reach out to me about panhandling within our small City of the South, Roanoke. While most are in support of the issue, I have had a few that do not and even a few wanting to troll the issue on the Facebook Group we have.

Through the community, I have been able to share several facts about panhandlers, many in the community have taken images and video clips of them in action and through great communication, we are finding that several of them are not homeless, most do it for a full time living and many citizens in our area get scammed when they open their wallets to them.

Today, I would like to share some ideas on how other cities in the US have dealt with panhandling and I want to share my own thoughts on what we should do as a city.

First, I want to address what a panhalder is.

Panhandlers are typically unmarried, unemployed men with few family ties. Although often associated with homeless populations, panhandlers may not be homeless. Likewise, panhandlers
are not necessarily mentally ill. While many panhandlers have criminal records, they are also likely to have been victimized themselves. People who engage in panhandling commonly use the money for alcohol, drugs, and food. Through some great research, I have been able to determine that roughly 60% of the panhandlers in Roanoke are scamming you. They panhandle in several locations and do this full time. Some, travel between Roanoke and Christiansburg throughout the week and they will frequent the same spots. I recently talked about one such woman and her lookout boyfriend that community members have called out. The couple uses cell phones in order to communicate with each other and to help be on the lookout for police. You can read about her here.

So WHO are the type of people that these people target?

Panhandlers target individuals perceived to be sympathetic or generous, such as male-female couples, conventioneers or tourists, college students, women, and grocery shoppers.

Panhandlers strategically position themselves in areas where soliciting yields high returns, such as

Panhandling is more prevalent in moderate climates and/or during warmer weather months. It often increases during periods of economic decline, when government benefit programs decrease, or during periods of high drug-abuse levels, such as the crack epidemic.
areas of high pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Common panhandling locations include: ATMs, buses or train stations; freeway entrances or exits; grocery or convenience-stores; and crowded sidewalks. Other environments that attract panhandlers include areas that provide seating, easy access to restrooms or water, and unsecured trash bins. Transient panhandlers also migrate to areas where the climate is warmer during the winter months.

I recently started an online Roanoke Panhandler map where you can typically find these people on any given day. The map is a great tool for the community as well as leaders and law enforcement to help locate these hotspots. As members of our group notice new locations, we will update the map.

So, what about other cities within the country, how are they dealing with the issue? The great thing about Roanoke is that over the years we have had great success in keeping the issue to a minimum, however since the summer of 2016, we have seen a huge increase of these people.

Some great ideas that I have come across from other places include:

  • Discourage patrons from giving to panhandlers by handing out educational brochures or posting educational signs
  • Require panhandlers to obtain solicitation permits through a city ordinance or law
  • Prohibit panhandling in specific locations (such as within 50 feet of ATMs or in particularly popular panhandling areas) through a city ordinance or law
  •  Modify environment to discourage loitering or panhandling, for example remove benches or trees, install “no loitering” signs
  • Provide informational brochures about available social service programs to panhandlers
  • Control access to windshield washing materials, such as water or areas to store buckets
  • Require all “vendors” to have permits
  • Initiate civilian patrols to monitor and discourage activity
  • Prohibit interference with vehicles or pedestrians through city ordinance or law
  • Prohibit activity in specific locations, such as within 20 feet of intersections through city ordinance or law, or in specific commercial parking lots through private property owner regulations
  • Prohibit alcohol sales of single serving containers of beer or wine through city ordinance or law
  • Initiate civilian patrols to monitor and discourage activity
  • Modify environment to discourage loitering or panhandling, such as removing benches or trees
  • Provide informational brochures about available social services and substance abuse treatment to panhandlers with suspected alcohol or drug addiction problems

Now, remember these are just ideas from other locations. Some of them might be great for Roanoke, some might not, the idea is to start thinking about a solution. Speaking of solutions, some cities have been pretty inventive with their solutions too.

Evanston, Illinois
The downtown business district of Evanston experienced a significant increase in aggressive panhandling that threatened the vitality of businesses. A panel of residents and representatives from business, law enforcement, education, and religious groups formed to study the problem and present strategies to prevent panhandling. The panel decided to focus on changing the behaviors of the givers and reducing the rewards (of money) to panhandlers. The group established a public education campaign to educate givers and dissuade donations, and selected individuals spoke directly with givers on the street to direct them to alternative methods of assistance. The police increased patrols
throughout the business district. After several months, the number of panhandlers in the district dropped from 36 to 23, a 64 percent reduction; the panhandlers that remained were much less aggressive. In a survey of downtown business owners, 75 percent of respondents were satisfied with the strategies to reduce panhandling and felt the aggressive panhandling had declined.
(Anti-Panhandling Strategy, Evanston, 1995)

Madison, Wisconsin
State Street businesses and the Madison Police Department partnered to address aggressive panhandling. After studying the panhandlers and their habits along State Street, the partnership determined that changes to the panhandling ordinance were in order. The city ultimately passed
an amendment and police officers educated the panhandlers about the new regulations and gave them warnings for violations. To clarify the ordinance even further, the partnership identified two locations to be legal sites for panhandling. These changes resulted in a decrease from 80 panhandlers along State Street to only two. State Street also experienced a 50 percent decrease in transports due to alcohol incapacitation.
(State Street Spare Change: Solution for Rampant Menacing and Aggressive Panhandling 2006)

Vancouver, Canada
The City of Vancouver experienced aggressive panhandling and squeegee activity near a downtown intersection. The neighborhood policing center, a partnership with business owners, Vancouver police, and residents, initiated several projects to address the problem. Police increased patrol
and enforcement activities and developed a list of repeat offenders. The partnership removed a bench used primarily by intoxicated people, as well as newspaper boxes, which people used to hide bottles or squeegee materials. Two banks at the intersection eliminated alcoves and ledges, which provided shelter and hiding spaces for unwanted individuals. In addition, the partnership redesigned landscaping and removed graffiti near the intersection. After three months of implementation, calls to
police decreased by more than 50 percent compared to the previous year.
(Intersecting Solutions 1999)

Personally, I would like to see a couple of things happen.

First, we need stricter laws to prohibit this. While holding a sign is not against the law and it's a "freedom of speech", some cities have made it illegal to accept things form motor vehicles because of safety concerns. I like the idea of heavily fining panhandlers and for repeat offenders have community service or jail time instituted.

Additionally, I like the idea of having a community of citizens that help report the issue to the police through notifications and images. Also, being able to have signs setup in these area hot-spots where you can typically find panhandlers. I found out that one city in Washington State took charge of these hot spot areas and installed landscaping, barriers and other deterrents to prevent panhandlers from standing in these hot areas. These are considered beautification measures while preventing the panhandlers from standing in the curbs, exits and medians.

Finally, we should have a watchdog organization that works with the organizations here in Roanoke, as well as police and the community in being able to help provide other things for panhandlers should they be in real need. Being able to get them off the streets and putting them with those that can help get their life back on track is much better than seeing them, week after week, month after month in the same spots.


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