Archive for Saturday, January 8, 2005

Merchants see value in badge system for homeless

Florida town reports some success with program to regulate services

January 8, 2005


Police officers and the city's homeless would have at least one thing in common under a proposal made Friday by downtown merchants: They would all wear badges.

At a Friday morning meeting, downtown merchants advocated that a proposed homeless services plan include a requirement that people who want to use shelters, soup kitchens and other services first obtain an official identification badge they would be required to show before receiving services.

The badges would require people to go through an application process and a police background check. They also would give police and service providers another method for punishing homeless people who break the law. Under the system, the badges could be taken from people for specific periods during which they would be denied some services provided by organizations for the homeless.

"Something has to be done to manage this problem better," said Peter Zacharias, owner of Goldmakers, 723 Mass. "The current system isn't serving the homeless very well, as evidenced by the lady who died in the park a few weeks ago. And it certainly isn't serving businesses or neighbors very well."

About a dozen merchants gathered to speak at a focus group conducted by the city's Task Force on Homeless Services. The task force is collecting reactions to a proposed homeless services plan that it will present to city commissioners next month. The plan does not include an identification badge system, though it does call for a new computer system that would allow service providers and police to share information about homeless individuals who receive services.

System demeaning?

The task force has discussed the badge system before. Jim Schneider, a task force member, said the idea was rejected because several members thought it inhumane.

"Some people thought it was demeaning," Schneider said. "People shouldn't have to produce an I.D. to receive food and shelter."

But Schneider said he hoped the task force would reconsider its position because the badges might be a way to help ensure the city's network of homeless services isn't enabling people to remain homeless.

The city's Task Force on Homeless Services will have a communitywide meeting to discuss its proposed homeless services plan at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 N.H.The proposal has six broad strategies:¢ Continued and increased support for homeless service providers to establish options for a full-time, 24-hour shelter and rehabilitation services program.¢ Funding for a case management team of four social workers to work directly with homeless people.¢ Re-establishment of an inpatient mental health unit in the community.¢ An increase in the number of transitional and permanent housing units for people experiencing homelessness.¢ Better use of established public and private employment services to create job options for people who are homeless.¢ Establishment of a new entity to coordinate service efforts.

Several merchants said they thought that was the case.

"There is a consensus that we're being very generous to all people," said Bob Schumm, owner of Buffalo Bob's Smokehouse, 719 Mass., and Mass Street Deli, 941 Mass.

Schumm said the community needed to recognize there were several types of homeless people. Some are truly down on their luck after losing a job, while others have serious mental health or alcohol and drug issues, Schumm said. But he said some were less deserving of the community's help.

"There is a group of perfectly able-bodied people who are just hanging out," Schumm said. "That is the group that we need to send a message to."

Used in other cities

Loring Henderson, director of the Lawrence Open Shelter, said he didn't agree with people who thought the current system was enabling homelessness.

"I can tell you that service providers do not see ourselves as enabling people by giving them food and shelter," Henderson said. "We see it as the first step in a process."

The idea of an I.D. badge system is not unique. Downtown merchants have researched similar systems in Fontana, Calif., and Clearwater, Fla.

Ed Brant, executive director of the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, said that city began an identification card system seven years ago after neighbors near a soup kitchen began complaining about homeless behavior.

Brant said his agency ran a police background check on each applicant and required each person to talk with one of the agency's counselors. The card gives the person access to the agency's soup kitchen, shelter and drop-in center.

Brant said the system allowed police officers to confiscate the cards of homeless people instead of writing them tickets for violating city ordinances. The cards are taken back to the agency, and the homeless person must talk with a counselor before the card is returned. Brant said the agency suspends access to services, sometimes as long as a month, but rarely denies life-sustaining services.

"We're not going to let anyone starve to death," Brant said.

Downtown merchants said they thought a Lawrence system should have exceptions that would allow all people -- whether they have a badge or not -- to receive services during cold weather and other extenuating circumstances. They also said homeless people who were new to the community should be given services for a few days while they decide whether they want to enter the city's system and comply with its rules.

Challenges seen

Merchants said they hoped the community would realize they're proposing the system as a way to improve the community's homeless situation, not as a means for punishing the homeless.

"This isn't a way for us to try to deny them anything," Schumm said. "We're trying to help them."

Brant said the system in Clearwater had some success.

"I can say it has given more folks the opportunity to leave homelessness," Brant said. "The card is a nice segue to get people to talk to us and our counselors."

Several people, though, predicted a badge system in Lawrence would be a tough sell in parts of the city. For example, the city would have little ability to stop churches or other organizations from providing services to people who don't have a badge.

"There are churches in this town that won't do this," City Manager Mike Wildgen told the task force. "There are certain groups that won't do this."

In addition to the badge system, merchants said they wanted the task force to consider proposing new ordinances that would outlaw aggressive forms of panhandling, and to create a board to oversee downtown service providers. The board would have significant representation from merchants and property owners.

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