Monday, March 04, 2013

Distinguishing Homelessness from Panhandling

Unique among her peers here or elsewhere, the community-destination marketing organization exec (DMO) where I live ventured out on a cold, rain-soaked night last month to take part in a nation-wide census of individuals and families who are homeless.

Part of its overarching brand or personality is that Durham, North Carolina is a caring community and one reason its marketing arm is considered so relevant by residents is that its involvement penetrates far beyond visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

However, homelessness including the small portion related to panhandling are often issues in communities across the nation that directly relate to a community’s overall appeal.

People confuse homelessness and panhandling, but an in-depth study in Clark County which includes Las Vegas, Nevada in 2007 found that 81% of those who are homeless never panhandle while 79% of panhandlers are unsheltered, often because they don’t qualify due to conditions such as substance abuse or mental illness.

The 19% of homeless who do panhandle are more likely not to have completed high school, to be unsheltered and to have fallen into homelessness repeatedly.

Greatly complicating efforts to resolve both homelessness and panhandling are “givers.

In Clark County, Nevada, with a population of 1.9 million at the time of the study,  panhandlers “earned” $24 million annually, one-third from 1.9 million residents and two-thirds from a combination of visitors and commuters.

Translated to the population of Durham County, that would be $3.4 million given to panhandlers each year, $1.1 million by residents and $2.3 million distributed by visitors and non-residents who work here.  Because two out of every three jobs here are held by non-residents, that proportion may be even higher.

In the Nevada study, about 62% of residents there were “givers” to panhandlers, 42% in the form of cash.  Half of the panhandlers were over 45 years of age and 69% were men and half were white.

Three-fourths were living alone, 9.4% with a spouse or partner and 2.8% with children.  More than one in five were military veterans and 70% had a disabling condition such as substance abuse and mental or physical disability.

Panhandlers in the study were 81% homeless, 32% living in a shelter or housing program, 11% with friends and relatives, while 8% lived in their own room, apartment or house.  Nearly 6 out of 10 (58%) were chronically homeless.

In North Carolina, the homeless counted on January 30th tallied 10,290.  It was interesting to note that 19% were mentally ill and 31% were substance abusers, compared to 17% and 38% of panhandlers in the Nevada study.

Another 40% of the panhandlers suffered from depression and 7.6% post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)

In the Las Vegas/Clark County study, 70% of the panhandlers received free meals, 37% had bus passes, 38% used emergency shelters and 26% used health services, while 53% received food stamps and 8% received social security.

More than 50% had panhandled a year or more including more than a quarter who had been panhandling more than three years. One in ten had panhandled more than five years.  On average they panhandled 17 days a month but 30% more than 26 days a month.

Panhandlers in the Nevada study averaged 4 hours a day and one in five worked at it 8 hours or more a day.  Nearly a third relied on “regular givers.”  One in ten panhandled to supplement work or government benefits (15% also work at jobs including 3% full-time,) 30% are unable to work, 20% can’t get hired and 23% don’t have transportation to get to work.

Three quarters of panhandlers in the Nevada study “made” less than $400 a month from panhandling, 20% supplement that with recycling as I often see a person do who regularly empties recycling carts of items that are especially valuable prior to the arrival of regular crews.

Another 8.% get additional funds from family or friends.  All tolled, 75% earn $750 or less a month.

Resolving homelessness and issues surrounding panhandling are not easy, but it is clear from the Nevada study that “givers” are part of the problem not the solution.

When asked if they would re-direct donations to local aid organizations that they give to panhandlers, 42% said no or were ambivalent (14%.)  Even 37% of those who do not give the panhandlers, rejected the idea or were ambivalent.

Any effort to address these two very different but overlapping conditions must involve educating residents, non-residents commuters and students as well as visitors.  A community’s DMO can also be an important partner.

Still many people do not respond to logic, or reason, or data.  The City of Durham, working with neighborhood activists is doing the right thing in my opinion.  Effective, January 16th, new rules took effect to curb and manage roadside solicitation including panhandling.

It is still short of a ban, which in my opinion and experience is warranted, but newspapers have argued for many years that this would restrict “free speech,” because their distributors would not be able to hawk papers from medians and along roadsides.

This is an incredible stretch but the threat of lawsuits is intimidating to otherwise community-wide efforts to address the issue of panhandling.

The new Durham rules about roadside solicitation are an excellent step forward and programs such as Durham, Can You Spare A Change by the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham are helping “givers” understand much better alternatives to panhandling.

Hopefully, a coalition to end homelessness involving the City and County of Durham plus a continuum of various non-profits will soon find its legs and begin to make similar progress.

One hopeful sign sign from January’s census is that all of Durham’s homeless are now sheltered, making it easier to identify and address places such as secluded cardboard tent cities where those panhandlers who are unsheltered may congregate.

In the meantime, especially key to the solution in Durham will be cooperation from residents, non-residents who hold two out of every three jobs here as well as nearly 8 million visitors.  Hopefully, the community’s DMO exec will continue to play a role.

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