Anyone who has ever walked down State Street knows that there are select areas of panhandlers asking for spare change. While people have differing opinions on panhandling, I think there can be common agreement that individuals asking for money can not only be a nuisance, but moreover, that panhandling may not be the best way for individuals that are truly in-need to receive money for resources and services, i.e. food, alcohol treatment, housing, childcare, medicine, etc… Sure, we’ve all seen people, maybe even ourselves, drop change into the cups or have seen a few dollars given here or there, but I doubt that the number of people who actually give money is anywhere near the number of people who want to help, even if its just giving some loose change in your pocket. Let’s face it, panhandlers don’t always have the best reputation, with stereo types and warnings that money raised will just be spent on alcohol or drugs. I’m not one to say that is an absolute truth, but hey, when you have a buck or change in your pocket and are asked for spare change, who hasn’t said they didn’t have any, or “sorry,” or “no,” or said anything at all and just kept walking? Who doesn’t feel at least a little guilty when you pass people who you know are in need of help but maybe don’t trust that your spare change will be used to actually help? Who hasn’t feared or assumed it may be used to exacerbate or propel some of the problems or issues of why that person is asking for money in the first place? Panhandling is not an easy issue by any means, especially because, digging deeper beyond the surface of asking for change, so many of the issues behind panhandling like homelessness, alcohol addictions, lack of food, medicine, or childcare rise from below and are even harder to address, much less talk about. It is important to recognize that not all panhandlers are alcoholics and some use the money raised on truly worthwhile resources. So, I think the questions about these issues should be: Are there better ways of reaching those who need help by getting them quality services? AND, is there a better way of reaching those who may want to contribute money, but do not because of a lack of confidence in how the money is spent?
Before I was elected to the Council, I met with Susan Schmitz from Downtown Madison Inc. Susan invited me to sit on a newly formed DMI Safety Subcommittee, which has since met about a half dozen times, mostly talking about chronic nuisance issues in the downtown and ways public and private entities can work together to address these and similar issues. A few days before one of the meetings, a friend and I were talking and he threw out the idea of using alternative methods to dissuade panhandling but still provide a way to raise money, specifically mentioning a system used in Denver where old parking meters are turned into fund-raising collectors in an effort to raise money for services by dissuading direct panhandling through more trusted giving. (I remembered seeing these in Denver when I was out there for the Democratic Convention and also read up on similar types in San Fran, Baltimore, and a few other cities.) So, at one of the meetings I threw out the idea of putting these here in Madison. Everyone on the committee seemed to be intrigued by the idea. Well, the committee met last week and I was excited to hear that DMI and the Police Department have been looking into the possibility, with an added focus on using more mailbox-like structures instead of the parking meters, primarily because this would allow for cash/check donations and not limit it to coins.
The details of the plans are being worked on but I think this would be a great addition to the State St. area, with strategic placement of the boxes in areas of high traffic and panhandling. I am also going to be talking with the University, businesses, and student groups/leaders about ways to promote these boxes if and when we can get them operational. Sure, I know there are details to be worked out, like who does the money go to? (I think the Madison Reach Out program would be a worthy cause: a partnership of DMI, the City, the University, businesses, etc. that works with programs like Porchlight, shelters, Tellurian, the United Way, and so many more) And also other questions like how can we make sure the boxes aren’t damaged or money stolen? Etc… but I think there many people in the downtown who would be confident in giving to these boxes, people who do not give spare change to panhandlers now, but would give to these boxes because individuals would be more confident that their contribution will be used for quality services and resources. The purpose of these mailbox-like places to give money isn’t just a way to raise money for services and resources, but would increase awareness of these issues here in Madison, especially in the campus and downtown area, and also provide an avenue for people who would like to contribute but may not trust the current methods of panhandling. Do I think we need to outlaw panhandling on State St? No. Do I think these boxes would help individuals in need and provide an avenue for people who are in a position to contribute some money, whether a few cents or a few dollars at a time, to fund programs and services that reach those in need? Absolutely.
What do you think?