City program to discourage panhandling

“Girlfriend! Girl-FRIEND! Spare some change for the shelter?”

At the corner of York and Elm streets, Annette “Flower Lady” Walton strikes a pose — harmless and armed with flowers to sell, her shouts heard around the Broadway district.

But downtown may grow quieter in the coming weeks and months.

Following the creation of “Real Change Takes More Than Spare Change,” a new campaign that encourages downtown residents to donate their pennies and nickels to service organizations instead of panhandlers, the city hopes to help impoverished New Haven residents find places to eat three meals a day while reducing panhandlers’ presence on city streets.

But the campaign, which targets both those who give money to panhandlers and those who solicit money, has raised concerns among some business owners, who worry the program’s advertisements will be ineffective because they are not well enough publicized.

The campaign’s brochure lists when and where homeless residents can find free meals throughout the week, as well as the names of service providers that take donations.

The Town Green Special Services District, a government organization dedicated to beautifying and marketing downtown New Haven, has been training store owners about how to interact with panhandlers, and venues around the city have started to display the campaign’s posters in their storefronts, Town Green Director Scott Healy ’96 said.

New Haven residents often donate to people on the street in order to feel better, but they could better promote those people’s well-being by making a donation to an organization rather than an individual who may spend the money on alcohol or drugs, Healy said.

“Here is the reality in New Haven: No one is turned away or denied emergency shelter if he or she can’t pay,” the brochure reads. “Many shelters do ask for a $3.00 nightly fee, but those who can’t pay have the option to do a shelter chore in lieu of the fee.”

Healy said providing a guide to the services fulfills a social contract between the city and its residents, wherein people can learn to help themselves by using social services. In the wake of federal cuts in funding, many shelters and food banks could use more donations, he said.

“Panhandling is a First Amendment right and we respect that,” Healy said. “But I think New Haven has reached the point in its history where we understand that we deliver a lot of services to people in need.”

City of New Haven Community Services Administration special projects director John Huettner said the new program would work well in conjunction with the New Haven Cares voucher program, under which residents can purchase vouchers redeemable for essential goods. But the “street sheet” could also do more to publicize the vouchers, Huettner said.

Many cities have implemented voucher and education programs, but even with both programs in place New Haven may not see a dramatic decrease in panhandling, law professor Robert Ellickson LAW ’66 said.

“I would doubt if either of these programs does much getting the attention of pedestrians and making them aware,” he said. “[The Town Green Program is] so low-key that it doesn’t deliver the message, so my guess is that almost nobody knows about that, and also it seemed that very few merchants have it in their windows.”

Whether the street sheet will have any impact on panhandling around campus remains to be seen. Yale administrators have thus far outlined no official plans to incorporate the street sheet into campus policies, although a few stores on Broadway, such as Campus Customs and Educated Burgher, are currently displaying the posters.

Yale students in particular contribute to the perpetuation of panhandling, Healy said, since many students have limited urban experiences and a quarter of the student body turns over every year.

“The profile of the typical Yale student skews very, very heavily toward suburban backgrounds, and they may carry very deep preconceptions about New Haven,” Healy said. “You probably assumed that when you got into this school that you were going to a poor city and that anything you could do would help. Panhandlers are definitely very skilled at tapping into that sense of guilt and obligation.”

People tend to conflate homelessness with panhandling, but numerous studies have shown that the large majority of panhandlers are not homeless, Ellickson said.

William “Junior” Huggins, who often camps near the Hall of Graduate Studies and asks for change, said he rents an apartment with U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration assistance.

But with bad knees, one working eye, pinched nerves and diabetes, the 58-year-old said he is unable to find work and supplements his $10-a-month food stamps with donations. He said he must make ends meet on about $20 a day.

Leshawna Murrell, who works at Campus Clothing — a merchandise store on Broadway — said friendly and predictable panhandlers like Huggins may negatively affect business. She said she has seen a rise in aggressive panhandling in New Haven over the last few years.

“Some [panhandlers] don’t know how to ask, when they’re drinking they have a different attitude like somebody don’t give ’em nothing, but that’s not the way you’re supposed to be,” Huggins said. “If a person comes by and gives you a little bit, be happy with that. I tell them, ‘Have a nice day.’ I like to be polite with people.”

But Murrell and Michael White, another Campus Clothing employee, attributed the rise in panhandling to increased unemployment. In addition to implementing the street sheet program, Murrell said, the state needs to take active measures to provide stable jobs.

“I think soup kitchens need to be open 24/7,” White said. “There should be a soup kitchen and a shelter in every single neighborhood. It’s not that simple to survive, especially if you haven’t graduated from high school, so I kind of respect where [the panhandlers are] coming from.”

The manager of Origins, who would only identify himself as “Christopher,” said merchants on Broadway do not have major conflicts with panhandlers — a contrast with Chapel Street restaurants such as Starbucks, whose owners have lost customers because of panhandlers who hang around and use the public bathrooms.

This summer, he said, a panhandler threw a chair out of a Starbucks window, incurring $2,000 in damages. But another self-termed “anonymous barista” said he does not mind homeless patrons.

“To be honest, a lot of the time the homeless tip better than Yale students,” the barista said.

Panhandling captured students’ attention in 2000, when Walton was arrested for selling flowers without a license.

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