Tom Marcinko

Voucher programs for panhandlers aim for ‘real change, not spare change’

Flagstaff, Arizona, program sells food and transit vouchers to give to the needy in place of cash

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — “Willing to accept verbal abuse and disgusted looks in exchange for money,” reads the hand-lettered cardboard sign on a downtown sidewalk.

Yet the sign’s owner, who gives only the name Dave, cheerfully accepts another option: a booklet of five $1 coupons redeemable for food at a handful of local stores and one restaurant.

The weeks-old voucher program is this mountain town’s latest attempt to deal with a frequent and unwelcome sight: panhandlers. The Better Bucks program, launched by the Flagstaff Police Department and a local nonprofit, the Shadows Foundation, is intended to give residents, tourists and university students an alternative to handing out cash to people in need.

Flagstaff made national headlines last year after police arrested a woman for begging. A lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona led a U.S. district court to declare Arizona’s anti-panhandling law unconstitutional. Police in this city of 65,870 made about 140 arrests under that law from April 2012 to April 2013, according to police chief Kevin Treadway.

Some Flagstaff merchants, like used-book store owner Evan Midling, note a rise in panhandling since that ruling — “Yes, even in a bookstore,” he said. Panhandlers with signs asking for help are a common sight near highway ramps and busy intersections.

Shadows Foundation director Vicki Burton, whose organization provides financial assistance for families with medical problems and other needy people, including the homeless, said the police approached her about seven months ago for a better way to discourage panhandling. With Treadway’s blessing and the tacit support of the City Council, Better Bucks is the result.

The vouchers forbid the purchase of “anything containing alcohol” — including mouthwash, cough syrup and hair spray — alleviating concerns that some panhandlers spend cash handouts to support drug or alcohol habits, Burton said, adding that the vouchers make possible “giving without enabling.” To discourage hoarding or reselling, only one booklet’s worth of coupons can be used for each visit to participating merchants.

Burton said that, just as important, each booklet includes a pass to Flagstaff’s Mountain Line bus system, plus the addresses and phone numbers of about a dozen local charities.

The program is off to a modest start. A local auto dealership donated $500 to get the project underway, Burton says, and half a dozen local businesses sell the booklets for $6 each. Burton says she sold about 300 of the booklets the first week and went back for a second printing of 500.

Dave happily accepted the booklet, but he had never seen one before and hadn’t heard of the program.

Flagstaff has a stick to go along with the carrot of the voucher program: In April the city amended its code to ban “aggressive” panhandling: Panhandlers may not touch, violate the personal space of or otherwise harass people or beg near businesses and cash machines. Police have arrested only one person for violating that statute, according to Sgt. Margaret Bentzen, the police department’s public relations director.

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Mik Jordahl, the Flagstaff lawyer who helped the ACLU strike down the state’s anti-panhandling ordinance, said, “I have heard no complaints whatsoever” from the city’s homeless on the new code. “I do believe it’s constitutional. No one wants to be harassed by anyone soliciting.”

He also praised the voucher program. “I think it’s a really compassionate exercise and it’s a proactive approach to solving some of our social problems rather than criminalizing them,” he said.

Voucher programs aren’t common, but the idea isn’t new.

The Dégagé Ministries in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has given $2 food coupons in exchange for custodial tasks around its homeless shelter since its 1967 founding — “sweeping the floor, taking out the trash, cleaning the grill, whatever,” said executive director Marge Palmerlee.

“It instills dignity to be able to work,” she said.

She said that panhandling has become more common in the wake of last year’s Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding of a district court striking down of Michigan’s anti-panhandling law in 2012.

“We’re seeing in our community a real increase in people standing on a street corner [or] exit ramp — many, many places where they weren’t before.”

So last year the self-described ecumenical Christian organization began to sell coupon books to the public, often through employers. The coupons are good only at the shelter and can be used for meals, haircuts and other amenities.

“People generally know that giving somebody a couple dollars is not a good idea,” Palmerlee says. “It’s not going to help them overcome life’s issues. It’s probably going to be used to feed an addiction.”

She called the vouchers “real change, not spare change,” because it brings needy people into the ministry, where they can get help in other areas of their lives, such as mental health appointments, job interviews or meetings with prospective landlords. “Once they’re in our facility, it gives us a chance to engage with them,” she says.

The group sold 5,800 vouchers from January 2013 through September of this year, says Palmerlee. About 4,500 have been used at the mission.

Another voucher program exists in Oklahoma City, where former banker Dan Straughan founded the Homeless Alliance in 2004. His group teamed up with local businesses to offer coupons good for public transit. “We didn’t want to do the food thing because of some sense that that was rewarding the not genuinely homeless,” he says.

He calls Flagstaff’s program “a great idea,” but says the rides-only approach is aimed at getting people to places where they can find shelter and other help. He says 800 to 1,000 ride vouchers get distributed per month, with about 300 redeemed for rides. He calls the ride vouchers a tool for people to “indulge their charitable impulse” in a way that really helps recipients.

Straughan stresses that not all panhandlers are homeless or vice versa. A 2006 survey by his group suggested that about 20 percent of panhandlers in Oklahoma City are homeless — though he adds that many panhandlers, homeless or not, are in real need. Oklahoma City has 12 shelters, with enough room to accommodate the city’s homeless population, he says. But neither the city nor his organization has the resources to tackle substance abuse.

Still, “giving cash to a panhandler is just a bad idea all around,” he says, adding that even a seemingly harmless item like mouthwash can have unintended uses, calling it “the drug of choice” for chronically homeless alcoholics.

Another program, in Memphis, Tennessee, has been using vouchers for about 14 years, according to Steve Carpenter, development director for the Memphis Union Mission. About 100 coupons get used at the mission each month, each good for a meal and a night’s shelter. The group sells them to the public in packs of four for a suggested $20 donation.

In Arizona, Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, says her 90-person shelter is full most of the time and about 35 percent of the clientele is Native American. Homelessness is a national problem, she said, and “housing is the answer.”

Still, she called Flagstaff’s voucher program a good step. “What I like is that it raises the conversation about what resources exist,” she says. “Any time the cops can come together with social services, I’m excited about that.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

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