Ideas for solving Covington's panhandling problem | Ryan Ryals
April 8, 2010 · Updated 9:59 AM
OK, so the aggressive panhandling ordinance passed in Covington last year didn’t completely work. The icky people are still out there on the street corners, so maybe now we need a passive panhandling ordinance, right?
I use the term “icky people” with tongue firmly in cheek, but that does represent the views of some citizens, which you can read in the online comments on this paper’s Web site. Most of them think that the handouts only go towards drugs and alcohol, but that’s not completely accurate. Even hardcore junkies have to eat every now and then, and most of them can’t stand still that long.
Covington’s City Council is having another study session on panhandling at 6 p.m. April 27 and the general public is welcome to attend. The council is also gracious enough to allow public comment after the meeting (unlike Maple Valley), so you can chime in with your opinion on what you just heard.
Panhandling is a more complex problem than we think, and we’re slowly learning that we can’t just legislate our way out of it (that pesky First Amendment thing, you know). The less well-known King Henry VII tried to deal with the problem in 1494 with the “Vagabonds and Beggars Act”, in which beggars and idle persons were put in the stocks for three days and three nights with only bread and water, and then put out of town. That didn’t work either, so please don’t try to suggest this option to the council.
Orlando tried to ban panhandling entirely in the mid-1990s, but ran into constitutional problems that forced them to change the law. Their next step in 1996 was to require panhandlers to register for a permit. That idea failed too, so in 2000 they painted dozens of blue rectangles on the sidewalks to restrict panhandling within those small boxes. I have to believe that homeless mimes thrived during this period.
In 2006, plainclothes police officers working as decoys made hundreds of arrests for begging, which could have resulted in a $500 fine or 60 days in jail, but the Orlando police department said they normally were just released for time-served, only with a misdemeanor on their record.
Despite this legislative flailing, homelessness in Orlando actually increased by 58 percent during this period. Kings have failed, large-city councilors have failed, so what can little Covington do to solve this?
Maybe it’s time for a well-planned effort. Here’s what I suggest to get started:
Cut off the source
Quite simply, panhandlers go where they can get the money. If we really want to stop panhandling, we have to encourage people in Covington to stop handing money to these folks. Giving to panhandlers does not help them get off the streets, and only enables them to continue standing on the corner.
We need a real campaign that lets people know this. Just releasing a statement on the city’s Web site or making a proclamation in a council meeting isn’t going to do it. This is the kind of project that creative marketers live for; a low-budget, get-the-word-out campaign that needs 100 percent awareness.
Provide easy ways to get help
Covington simply doesn’t have the resources to solve this problem. The best way the city can help folks who are truly in need is to help them get to those resources. That may be as simple as a card with the 211 community information line, which is staffed with specialists to help people find emergency shelter, or food and clothing assistance. Maybe include a one-time bus voucher to get them there.
Support those doing the helping
Atlanta and Denver both use donation meters (that look like parking meters), which make it easy for downtown walkers to contribute to homeless organizations. That wouldn’t work in car-friendly Covington, but if the city can make it really convenient and easy for citizens to contribute, I’m sure they would respond. Perhaps local businesses could be persuaded to offer a donation bucket near the cash register, and encourage customers to leave their change.
We’re only scratching the surface here. Covington could go even further and partner with organizations that work to solve this problem, and contribute to the solutions. Denver has a 10-year plan, and has already reduced chronic homelessness by 36 percent.
Is Covington committed to solving the problems of panhandling and true homelessness, or is it committed to simply getting it out of sight (and out of mind)? It’s your city, so you get to decide. Let your council members know where you stand.
Ryan Ryals lives in Maple Valley and writes a weekly column about politics and life in the city.