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.