Downtown merchants have a new message for their customers: It’s time for a change when it comes to giving spare coins to panhandlers.
Downtown Lawrence Inc., with some help from City Hall, plans to launch a new educational program designed to discourage downtown visitors from supporting panhandlers.
“We need to convince the public that the money they give panhandlers really will not help them,” said Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. “The small amount that most people can afford to give is not enough to help the individual, and a lot of times the money they do receive is not used for very productive purposes.”
The proposed program — which likely wouldn’t begin until the spring — centers on a resource card that lists all the social service agencies where panhandlers can receive help.
The resource card — a tri-folded pamphlet about the size of a business card — will be available near the check-outs of downtown businesses. Pennington said the cards are designed to be given to customers who can choose to give them to panhandlers in lieu of cash.
But Pennington said even if customers don’t choose to give the card to panhandlers, it still will be useful to educate customers that it is OK not to give panhandlers money.
“The people who really need help in the community, by and large, know where to get it,” Pennington said. “We hope by sharing this information with the public that we will ease any guilt they have in not giving money. We hope they’ll see that there are a lot of ways for people to get help in Lawrence.”
The resource card will list contact information for about 20 social service organizations, including providers of food, shelter, health care and drug and alcohol treatment. The card also encourages people to volunteer or donate money to a social service organization.
It also will offer several tips to deal with panhandlers, including to “walk with confidence” on the city’s streets, and to “above all, please do not give directly to panhandlers. Data show that the money received from panhandling goes to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes — not to food and shelter.”
Loring Henderson, director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, said he supports the effort, though he said he would like to see some of the language about panhandling money being used for drugs and alcohol toned down.
“That particular phrase is a little harsh,” Henderson said. “But it is still a draft, and the intention is good. We don’t support panhandling at the shelter. As far as we’re concerned, it is not a healthy activity.”
The program is based after a similar one used in Madison, Wis., Pennington said.
The city likely will provide some help to get the program off the ground, said Megan Gilliland, communications coordinator with the city. She said the city likely would provide assistance with the printing of the resource cards, and is helping ensure that the information on the cards is accurate.
The cards likely will start showing up in March or April as warmer weather brings out more panhandlers.
“We do feel like the additional foot patrols by the police have made a tremendous difference in the number of panhandlers on the street,” Pennington said. “But we feel like we need this extra step to ensure that downtown is an inviting place to be.”