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What to Do About Pan Handling in Cleveland? 

There are many business and pedestrian interest groups that are very upset about panhandling, and have petitioned the city for years to “do something about panhandlers.”  In court documents the sweeps, the dumping of homeless people, and the attack on the Grapevine newspaper in the 1990s were all tied to strategies to reduce panhandling by Mayor Michael White.  The advocacy community believes that there is a significant amount of pressure building at this time to enact legislation around pan handling.  Despite efforts in other cities, which have largely failed, we see that there is legislation going forward.

  • Columbus passed a similar law—very little impact downtown.  They have two times the number of panhandlers that we have in Cleveland especially at the State House and Ohio State.
  • Cincinnati passed a more severe law with registration of panhandlers—Very little impact and have had to defend the legislation in court.
  • Dayton passed the strictest legislation with registration and public humiliation—Very little impact because the police have other things to worry about.  Expecting lawsuit.

But there is a great deal of anger among the business community around panhandling.  This is understandable since there are so few people working Downtown it only amplifies the annoyance factor with panhandlers.  With 500 people on the street, a panhandler will only be able to talk to a small number of people.  With only 100 people on the street, each panhandler maybe able to ask for money from every single person on the sidewalk.  So more than one panhandlers causes a huge disturbance.  It is the belief of NEOCH that this will not have any impact on panhandling in the City of Cleveland.

This is an easy way to show something is being done about the problems without a lot of cost to the public sector.  It has very little impact, and will certainly not discourage panhandling.  The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has never supported empty legislation.  So we would ask for a few things added to any legislation that is proposed:

  1. Written into the legislation needs to be reporting requirements for the City.  We need to see on the City of Cleveland website or posted in City Hall or some other delivery of information about the enforcement of this and other “quality of life” laws against homeless people.  We want to know on a monthly basis how many tickets were issued for aggressive solicitation, disorderly conduct, jay walking, open container against people who use a shelter address or declare themselves to be homeless. 

  2. The business community should pay for the creation of a downtown restroom facility and its upkeep.  This could be a self cleaning model as other cities have or one that is adopted by one of the downtown buildings to clean on a regular basis.

  3. The business community, which is pushing this legislation, should put $35,000 into a fund to support a panhandling diversion and discouragement program.  The City of Cleveland would oversee distribution of funds that could work with the citizens of Cleveland who choose to panhandle to get them into some other occupation and could provide an alternative to panhandling for businesses to call on if they are in need of help.

A few other things to keep in mind about panhandling in Cleveland:

  1. Do not over dramatize the problem!  A quick scan of the panhandling problem in Cleveland in comparison to other cities will show that we really have a minor problem.  We also do not have nearly the number of persistent or aggressive solicitors.  The Grapevine vendors have reported an increase in the last year in panhandling, which probably has a lot to do with the downturn in the economy.

  2. Do not forget the bigger problem.  We cannot take our eyes off of the bigger problem, which is people sleeping outside.  In many cities, panhandling seems to be an easier problem and so business groups go after the panhandlers instead of trying to solve the problems associated with homeless people sleeping outside.

  3. Panhandling is an old profession.  In addressing this problem, we must keep in mind that panhandling has existed for thousands of years through Roman dictators, communist dictators, and fascist leaders.  Panhandling has plagued many societies throughout history, and very few have successfully ended the practice.

  4. Panhandlers are not always homeless.  It is important to keep in mind that not all panhandlers are homeless and not all homeless people are panhandlers.  A city can do a great job of providing shelter and yet still have panhandlers or conversely can ban panhandling and still have homeless people.  Also remember that the vast majority of panhandlers are just men without jobs and are safe and often friendly individuals.

  5. Education has its limits.  Some cities attempt to campaign against panhandlers with brochures and slogans, ambassadors to surround and isolate panhandlers, or even going to the point of installing meters that people can donate to instead of to panhandlers.  Some of these educational programs are useful, but it has its limits.  Some people want to have the opportunity to give their money to people in need without the middle man, without the church taking a cut or the non-profit taking an administrative fee.  No matter how much education, there are many who want to donate.

  6. Competition does work.  Having a strong, active and widespread street newspaper project makes it difficult for panhandlers.  Employing homeless people to be bell ringers for the Salvation Army is direct competition.  Even having artists that collect money for playing, singing, or doing magic will make panhandlers leave.  If a person has a choice between two live people one with a product or talent and the other asking for charity, the commercial activity almost always wins.  Some cities hold auditions and then place the best street artists around the city in an effort to discourage pan handling. The panhandler will move on.

  7. If you can’t beat them… We have seen the success of hiring panhandlers in the Flats to distribute passes to the nightclubs and bars.   The individual can make the money they need by being paid for every coupon that is turned in, and it is inexpensive advertising.  The panhandler will not have time to ask for money if they are giving out coupons.  The business strikes a deal that the distributor of passes will not ask for money.  This strategy also is rough competition to other panhandlers.  The Homeless Grapevine is also an effective competition to panhandling.

  8. Law Enforcement does not work.  Crack downs on “aggressive solicitations” do not work, and are expensive for a city.  Police have much more important things to do than to chase down panhandlers.  Invariably, in this town an aggressive solicitation campaign would be challenged in court, and would cost the city increased legal bills.  Not to mention the fact that the large number of tickets makes it more difficult to get into housing or find a real job.  Panhandlers will always find a way around the rules.  For example, Cincinnati made it illegal to ask for money with words, so the panhandlers and their activist friends just distributed signs that asked for donations. 

  9. Current laws need to be enforced.  Cities claim that they need specific laws to take care of “aggressive solicitation.”  Many lawyers and activists claim that existing laws can take care of the problem.  After all, if a person follows a pedestrian down the street asking for money that could certainly be considered menacing or theft.  The big issue is that unless police watch the activity, they must rely on the pedestrian victim to file a complaint and follow it through the courts.  This is not something that most pedestrians have the time or ability to do.

  10. Figure out the homeless outdoor problem and the City will reduce the number of panhandlers.  With a great deal of attention on solving homelessness or providing jobs, the panhandling problem will significantly diminish.  NEOCH has a report on how to work on the outdoor problems.