I am the program manager of the St. Stephen’s Human Services Street Outreach Team. I would like to respond to community concern regarding homelessness, panhandling and the efforts to eliminate this behavior in Minneapolis (“Billboards try to stop begging at the source,” June 4, and “Downtown billboard campaign is misguided,” Readers Write, June 7).
For several years, Minneapolis has experienced an affordable-housing crisis, given a vacancy rate that has hovered around 1.7 percent. This equates to individuals who are below the poverty line being relegated to emergency shelter, doubling up with friends or sleeping outside. On May 27, for example, it was reported that 1,390 adults and 867 children were actively using emergency shelter in Minneapolis. Our outreach team’s primary focus is on the 236 unsheltered individuals who are sleeping in places not fit for human habitation and the 198 individuals who are panhandling. We are acutely aware of these individuals’ needs, of the degrading feelings they experience when they are asking for handouts and of the broader systemic failures that contribute to panhandling.
I disagree with one letter writer’s position that the Minneapolis Downtown Council is uninformed on the issue of giving to panhandlers. The Downtown Council has taken the approach of partnering with organizations that attempt to meet the needs of panhandlers in more sustainable and dignified ways that do not fuel learned helplessness. The obligation of service providers or volunteers is to be aware of services that can meet their clients’ needs without having their clients rely on handouts at a street corner. In Minneapolis, there are numerous agencies that provide a broad range of services, including transportation, copay assistance and free meals seven days a week.
Small donations foster panhandling through the concept of reward reinforcement. If a community member is providing a reward (“a small donation”) on an exit ramp or a street corner, the person receiving the reward is more likely to continue this behavior. Unbeknown to the giver, panhandlers are in a position to experience violence at a higher rate as a result of receiving money in public. Also, people who may already be feeling depressed or hopeless are receiving reinforcement of a very demeaning position, and in some cases this small donation may perpetuate an addiction. This is not just my opinion as a service provider; it has been borne out in numerous scholarly articles.
If, as a community, we want to uphold the dignity of individuals in poverty, we need to address panhandling by educating the public on the realities of a panhandler’s plight. The tentacles of our city’s systemic failures as they relate to poverty are far-reaching; we cannot nickel-and-dime our way out of panhandling. Research has shown that eliminating panhandling requires a broad approach. The most effective way to achieve this is with a public-education campaign involving direct-service providers, clergy members, informed community stakeholders and all forms of media, including billboards.
I applaud the Downtown Council for its continued efforts to teach members of the public to be responsible stewards by redirecting their giving to viable, direct services in the community. Minneapolis is filled with well-meaning and compassionate citizens, and the Downtown Council is attempting to harness this generosity by fostering real change.
Individuals who promote giving to panhandlers perpetuate the notion that this spare change helps in some way. If we are concerned for the individuals engaging in panhandling, we must advocate for systemic change that does not send human beings to street corners for basic needs.
Joseph Desenclos lives in Minneapolis.