If you live downtown there are a few things you get used to: a lack of parking, tourist who walk and drive at a snail’s pace and do not know how to parallel park, and panhandling. Panhandling, to the tourist and weekend party-goer are just annoyances that must be dealt with during your visit to the city. However, for those of us who live and work here, our experience with the guy asking for spare change on the corner has a very different dynamic. These are people we interact with on a frequent basis where to some extent a relationship is formed. Look at the comments that poured in for Leroy “The Mayor of Baltimore” when the City Paper wrote an article on his incarceration. I would not consider Leroy a panhandler per se but he is one of those street personalities that is well known by many generations of downtown inhabitants. So is panhandling just a common ingredient in the recipe of urban life or is it a scourge on business and tourism?
Many downtown organizations have made attempts to see what types of impact panhandling has on the area. In 2009, The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and the Downtown Partnership hired a Philadelphia consulting firm, Econsult Corp, to study the economic impact of panhandling on the city’s tourism business. The City for years has attempted to deter panhandling and there are several laws in place to curb aggressive panhandling. For instance, Baltimore prohibits aggressive panhandling in public places and at night. The laws also ban panhandling of individuals within 10 feet of ATM machines, waiting for public transit and driving cars stopped in traffic (Hello President Street!). Violations could carry up to a $100 fine. (Fining homelesss people begging for money will serve as a deterrent! LOL) The city’s problems with panhandlers are popping up in online travel reviews of hotels and attractions posted by visitors. There are fears that negative reviews could put a damper on future tourism and business.
Before you believe that this is Baltimore’s business community’s attempt to wage war on the homeless, think again. Panhandling and homelessness are two different issues. The City has created “The Journey Home”- a 10 year program to end homelessness in Baltimore by 2018. This project attempts to bring together businesses, not-for-profit and faith-based organizations and citizens to tackle this complex social and public health crisis. The Journey Home plans to go about its mission with a 4 prong attack: (1) Creating affordable housing (2) Providing comprehensive healthcare (3) Maintaining sufficient incomes and (4) Providing comprehensive prevention and emergency services. For more information concerning the program go to www.journeyhomebaltimore.org.
An option put in place in 2008 by Baltimore and the Downtown Partnership was the conversion of old parking meters into donation meters in downtown to offer visitors another charitable option without giving to panhandlers. Those donations total about $100 a month from 10 meters, which goes to citywide outreach programs offered by the Baltimore Homeless Services Inc. 17 additional meters were added in January 2009.
Presently, all attempts to find the results of the Econsult Corp study proved to be fruitless. Also, there was a lack of information on how successful the meter program has been over the last year – and here lies the problem. If Baltimore wants its citizens to partake in alternatives to giving directly to panhandlers in order to curb aggressive panhandling, it must make its citizens aware of the alternatives. Only with a true promotional campaign throughout downtown can we then assess a program’s effectiveness.