Thursday, April 14, 2016

Myths vs Facts about Panhandling

English: Panhandler in Oceanside, California.Our City Council is concerned about "aggressive panhandling" in the business district and wants to take steps to curb it. Some of their programmatic ideas are excellent. They are investing $250,000 in such things as an emergency shelter fund, rapid rehousing, a case manager at the library, cops specially trained to work with the homeless, etc. They are also aware of the need for permanent supportive housing and recognize that housing the homeless will eliminate most of the problems. But as an immediate response to a perceived crisis, the City is also looking to law enforcement and is considering "anti-camping" and anti-panhandling ordinances.  Arresting, fining and jailing "aggressive" panhandlers might placate business interests, but I feel these measures will do little to solve the problem.

To deal with panhandling, we need to know who is panhandling, and why. Ideally, the City should survey the panhandlers in our City to find out more about them. Meanwhile I did some online research and found articles that I think could help our City Council come up with effective policies.

What is the profile of the typical panhandler in San Francisco, how much do they make, and how do they spend their money?

                                                                                                                                                                        Conservatives like Stossel at Fox News and  New York Post spread the idea that panhandlers are making lots of money and are using it mainly for drugs and alcohol.   In an article called “Everything you thought about panhandlers is wrong,” Scott Keyes gives the results of a survey of panhandlers conducted in San Francisco that shows this is simply untrue for the vast majority of panhandlers. Here’s the summary:

“In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. Though [Fox News commentator] Stossel was insistent that panhandlers just use the money for beer and pot, the majority of those surveyed did not. In fact, 94 percent used the meager funds they raised for food.

Of course, panhandlers also use some of their money for alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, just like other Americans do.

Is it better to give money to panhandlers or to social service organizations?

 Derek Thompson argues it is better to give money to organizations that provide services for the homeless rather than directly to panhandlers, which is basically true:

“The upshot: The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.”

I agree with Thompson but I have a caveat: suppose the City isn’t providing what homeless and poor people need to survive, much less thrive. If there isn’t enough housing, jobs, medical assistance, food, etc. shouldn’t a homeless person have the right to ask for help through panhandling? It may not be the best solution, but in some cases, it’s necessary. Take, for instance, my friend Melissa who received $900 in SSI, which was not enough for rent, much less food. She had to panhandle for food and rent.

As the Toronto study cited below indicates, there sometimes aren’t enough funds for housing and social services to insure that very low income people get the food and housing they need. Some low-income people have to supplement what they receive in social services with some other income source, like panhandling, recycling or doing odd jobs. Here’s how a Canadian study addresses this question:

Do panhandlers like panhandling and do they need the money? How do they use it?

A Toronto study indicates that 70% of panhandlers would prefer a job (even a minimum wage job) and those who panhandle and live in apartments would probably be on the street if they didn’t panhandle:

“In conclusion, the majority of panhandlers in Toronto are homeless and living in extreme poverty. We found that the amount of money panhandlers spend on alcohol and illicit drugs is significant, but much lower than some have suggested. The health effects of a loss of panhandling income are uncertain, because panhandlers might reduce their food intake, reduce their substance use or find other sources of income. For the one-fourth of panhandlers who rent a room or apartment, however, any loss of income could easily lead to homelessness. Future studies of panhandlers should attempt to verify income and spending patterns objectively and examine differences in these variables by sex, housing status and health status.

How much do panhandlers make?

I was intrigued to read this article by a formerly homeless person. Based on her informal survey, she estimates around $10 – 100 per day. This is anecdotal, but interesting because it gives a picture of what panhandlers are like in California.

Aggressive Panhandling: A police policy perspective

This is the most detailed and comprehensive study I’ve found, from a website called “Center for Policy-Oriented Policing.”  It deals with a whole range of issues, including best practices for police. This is a “must read” for policy makers. This passage suggests that police need to be trained to be thoughtful in enforcement of aggressive-panhandling laws by knowing the street culture. This study assumes that panhandlers are not mentally ill and acting out, but rational individuals trying to survive by panhandling.

Police need not heavily enforce aggressive-panhandling laws in order to control panhandling; the informal norms among most panhandlers discourage aggressive panhandling anyway.75 Panhandlers exercise some influence over one another's behavior, to minimize complaints and keep police from intervening.76 Enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws can serve to reinforce the informal norms because aggressive panhandling by the few makes panhandling less profitable for others.77

Enforcement Responses
Whether or not you emphasize enforcement of laws that regulate panhandling, it is important that the laws be able to survive legal challenge. Police should have valid enforcement authority to bolster other responses they use, including issuing warnings to panhandlers.60 Laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling or panhandling in specified areas are more likely to survive legal challenge than those that prohibit all panhandling. If enforcement of panhandling laws will be a key component of your strategy, and if you think the panhandling laws you rely on are vulnerable to legal challenge (or if you want to draft a new panhandling law), you should consult legal counsel to help you draft and propose new legislation. There are a number of model panhandling ordinances61 and legal commentaries on the constitutionality of panhandling laws62 in the literature. See Appendix A for a list and brief summary of some of the leading cases on the constitutionality of panhandling and laws that regulate it.

Warning panhandlers and ordering them to ”move along“ are perhaps the most common police responses to panhandling.63 Many police beat officers develop working relationships with regular panhandlers; they use a mix of formal and informal approaches to keeping panhandling under control.64 Most officers do not view panhandling as a serious matter, and are reluctant to devote the time necessary to arrest and book offenders.65 Moreover, even when they have the authority to issue citations and release the offenders, most officers realize that panhandlers are unlikely to either appear in court or pay a fine.66 Prosecutors are equally unlikely to prosecute panhandling cases, typically viewing them as an unwise use of scarce prosecutorial resources.67

Panhandler arrests are rare,68, but when they occur, this is the typical scenario: An officer issues a panhandler a summons or citation that sets a court date or specifies a fine. The panhandler fails to appear in court or fails to pay the fine. A warrant is issued for the panhandler's arrest. The police later arrest the panhandler after running a warrant check during a subsequent encounter. The panhandler is incarcerated for no more than a couple of days, sentenced to time already served by the court, and released.69

† Goldstein (1993) estimated that police made arrests for panhandling in only about 1 percent of all police/panhandler encounters.
Because prosecutors and judges are unlikely to view isolated panhandling cases as serious matters, it is advisable to prepare and present to the court some background information on panhandling's overall impact on the community. A problem impact statement can help prosecutors and judges understand the overall negative effect the seemingly minor offense of panhandling is having on the community.70 In the United Kingdom, police can apply to the courts for an ”antisocial behavior order“ against individuals or groups as one means of controlling their persistent low-level offending.71Violations of the orders can result in relatively severe jail sentences. It is unknown how effective the orders have been in controlling panhandling.

† British antisocial behavior orders are similar in some respects to American restraining and nuisance abatement orders.
1.      Prohibiting aggressive panhandling. Laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling are more likely to survive legal challenge than laws that prohibit all panhandling, and are therefore to be encouraged.72 A growing number of jurisdictions have enacted aggressive-panhandling laws, most within the past 10 years.†† Enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws can be difficult, partly because few panhandlers behave aggressively, and partly because many victims of aggressive panhandling do not report the offense to police or are unwilling to file a complaint. Police can use proactive enforcement methods such as having officers serve as decoys, giving panhandlers the opportunity to panhandle them aggressively.73 Some agencies have provided officers with special legal training before enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws.74 Enforcing other laws panhandlers commonly violate—those regarding drinking in public, trespassing, disorderly conduct, etc.—can help control some aspects of the panhandling problem.

†† Among the jurisdictions to have enacted aggressive-panhandling laws are the states of Hawaii and California, and the cities of San Francisco; Seattle; Minneapolis; Albuquerque, N.M.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Cincinnati; Dallas; Tulsa, Okla.; and Washington, D.C.
Police need not heavily enforce aggressive-panhandling laws in order to control panhandling; the informal norms among most panhandlers discourage aggressive panhandling anyway.75 Panhandlers exercise some influence over one another's behavior, to minimize complaints and keep police from intervening.76 Enforcing aggressive-panhandling laws can serve to reinforce the informal norms because aggressive panhandling by the few makes panhandling less profitable for others.77

Aggressive-panhandling laws typically include the following specific prohibitions:
·         confronting someone in a way that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm;
·         touching someone without his or her consent;
·         continuing to panhandle or follow someone after he or she has refused to give money;
·         intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe passage of a person or vehicle;
·         using obscene or abusive language toward someone while attempting to panhandle him or her; and
·         acting with intent to intimidate someone into giving money.78

2.      Prohibiting panhandling in specified areas. Many courts have held that laws can restrict where panhandling occurs. Panhandlers are increasingly being prohibited from panhandling:
·         near ATMs;
·         on public transportation vehicles and near stations and stops;
·         near business entrances/exits;
·         on private property, if posted by the owner; and
·         on public beaches and boardwalks.79
One legal commentator has proposed a novel approach to regulating panhandling: zoning laws that would strictly prohibit panhandling in some areas, allow limited panhandling in other areas, and allow almost all panhandling in yet other areas.80 The literature does not report any jurisdiction that has adopted this approach as a matter of law, though clearly, police officers informally vary their enforcement depending on community tolerance levels in different parts of their jurisdiction.

3.      Prohibiting interference with pedestrians or vehicles. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that specifically prohibit impeding pedestrians' ability to walk either by standing or by lying down in the way. Enforcement can be difficult where such laws require police to establish the panhandler's intent to obstruct others. The city of Seattle drafted a law that eliminated the need to establish intent, and that law survived a legal challenge.81 Where panhandling occurs on roads, as car window-washing usually does, enforcing laws that prohibit interfering with motor vehicle traffic can help control the problem.82

4.      Banning panhandlers from certain areas as a condition of probation. Because panhandling's viability depends so heavily on good locations, banning troublesome panhandlers from those locations as a condition of probation, at least temporarily, might serve to discourage them from panhandling and, perhaps, compel them to consider legitimate employment or substance abuse treatment.83 Convicted panhandlers might also be temporarily banned from publicly funded shelters.84 Alternatively, courts could use civil injunctions and restraining orders to control chronic panhandlers' conduct, although actual use of this approach does not appear in the literature.85 Obviously, police will require prosecutors' endorsements and judicial approval to advance these sorts of responses.

5.      Sentencing convicted panhandlers to appropriate community service. Some jurisdictions have made wide use of community service sentences tailored to the particular offender and offense.86For example, officers in St. Louis asked courts to sentence chronic panhandlers to community service cleaning the streets, sidewalks and alleys in the area where they panhandled.87

6.      Requiring panhandlers to obtain solicitation permits. Some cities, including Wilmington, Del., and New Orleans, have at some time required panhandlers and window washers to obtain solicitation permits, just as permits are required from street vendors and others who solicit money in public.88, Little is known about the effectiveness of such permit schemes.

† Licensing schemes for beggars reportedly have existed in England as far back as 1530 (Teir 1993)[Full Text]. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (1994) has published guidance on drafting laws enabling permit systems, though the language seems designed to inhibit panhandling, rather than allow it.

Public Education Responses
7.      Discouraging people from giving money to panhandlers, and encouraging them to give to charities that serve the needy. In all likelihood, if people stopped giving money to panhandlers, panhandling would cease.89 Public education campaigns are intended to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers. They typically offer three main arguments: 1) panhandlers usually use the money to buy alcohol and drugs, rather than goods and services that will improve their condition; 2) giving panhandlers small amounts of money is insufficient to address the underlying circumstances that cause them to panhandle; and 3) social services are available to meet panhandlers' food, clothing, shelter, health care, and employment needs. Some people do not understand the relationship between panhandling and substance abuse, or are unaware of available social services, however obvious these factors may seem to police.90 Public education messages have been conveyed via posters, pamphlets, movie trailers, and charity collection points.91 A poster campaign was an important element of the New York City Transit Authority's effort to control subway panhandling.92 In Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., special parking meters were used as collection points for charities that serve the needy.93 Some police officers have invested a lot of their own time making personal appeals to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.94 Some cities, such as Evanston, Ill., have hired trained civilians to make such appeals.95 Not everyone will be persuaded by the appeals; some will undoubtedly perceive them as uncaring.
8.      Using civilian patrols to monitor and discourage panhandling. In Baltimore, a business improvement district group hired police-trained, uniformed, unarmed civilian public-safety guides to intervene in low-level disorder incidents, and to radio police if their warnings were not heeded.96 Portland, Ore., developed a similar program,97 as did Evanston.98
9.      Encouraging people to buy and give panhandlers vouchers, instead of money. Some communities have instituted programs whereby people can buy and give panhandlers vouchers redeemable for food, shelter, transportation, or other necessities, but not for alcohol or tobacco. Typically, a private nonprofit organization prints and sells the vouchers and serves as the broker between buyers and merchants. Some vouchers are printed in a way that makes them difficult to counterfeit. Vouchers are often accompanied with printed information about where they can be redeemed and what social services are available to the needy. Window signs and flyers are commonly used to advertise voucher programs. There is some risk, however, that panhandlers will exchange the vouchers for money through a black market,99 or that few people will buy the vouchers, as has been reported in some jurisdictions.100

† The earliest reported program was in Los Angeles. Other cities where voucher programs have been instituted include Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Calif.; Nashville; Memphis; New Haven; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Seattle; Boulder, Colo.; New York; and Edmonton, Alberta (Ellickson 1996; New York Times 1993; Wall Street Journal 1993). Some communities have considered and rejected voucher programs (Evanston Police Department 1995).[Full Text]

I hope this information is helpful and would like to share it with those on the City Council who are wondering what to do about the homeless residents in our city. I’d also like your input. 

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