Group Seeks ‘Real Change’ for Panhandlers

“Panhandling is not just an individual asking for money; it’s a society that has people in it that need to ask for money.”

Editor’s note: The following feature is the final in a seven-part series on homelessness in Richmond written by students taking part in “Reporting for Print and Web,” an undergraduate journalism course led by by Jeff South, Associate Professor at VCU’s School of Mass Communications.

While waiting for the light to turn green, you try to avoid making eye contact with the scruffy man holding the sign: “Nam-Vet, anything helps, God loves you.” You consider taking out your wallet but wonder: Is he really a Vietnam veteran? Is he homeless? How will he use the money?

Advocates for the homeless in Richmond say you are better off saving your money.

“You would be better served to give that same $5 to one of the local service agencies,” said Tiffany Taylor-Minor, communications director for Homeward, which coordinates services for homeless people in the Richmond area.

Homeward recently launched a panhandling prevention campaign called “Real Change.” The goal is to “present a strategic and effective response to panhandling, both for those who are a part of our local homeless community and for those that panhandle and are not in crisis.”

Instead of giving panhandlers money, Homeward wants you to give them information about local services for people who are homeless or down and out. You can find those service providers on the group’s Web site

Homeward has created a hand card listing local agencies that help the homeless. Members of the business community and the general public can contact Homeward about how to obtain the cards, which they would give to panhandlers in lieu of cash.

Panhandlers can turn in the cards for bus tickets to get to places that offer the services they need.
On its Web site, Homeward recaps statistics from a recent survey of homeless people in Richmond: Fewer than 12 percent said that they had panhandled or asked strangers for money. This suggests that a typical panhandler may not be homeless.

“Not all panhandlers are homeless,” Taylor-Minor said. “The words are not interchangeable.”

Panhandling has been a problem in the Richmond area for years, and for years people have tried to prevent it.

Ken Martin, neighborhood patrol chairman for the Fan District Association, has had a change of mind about panhandling. For several years, he helped a homeless man get back on his feet. But now he thinks panhandling should be stopped.

“Over the years, I have been approached by dozens of people asking for money. When I said I would buy them a burger or take them where they need to go, the answer was always the same: ‘I just want the money,’” Martin said.

This year, Richmond City Council Member Bruce Tyler proposed an ordinance to ban panhandling. He said it is unsafe for someone to solicit motorists: Drivers could get distracted and cause an accident.

Tyler withdrew the measure after opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This infringes on a legitimate First Amendment right to ask for money,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU.

“Panhandling is not just an individual asking for money; it’s a society that has people in it that need to ask for money.”

Just as panhandlers have a constitutional right to ask for money, the people they solicit have a right to give money or refuse, the ACLU says.

“Standing on the sidewalk and begging for a donation is generally an act of desperation,” Willis said. “In other words, people don’t do it for fun.”

For more about Homeward’s “Real Change” campaign, visit their website.

Previous features in this series:

All articles and photos featured in this series are being published with the permission of Jeffrey South, Associate Professor, School of Mass Communications, Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Xanthe Waters

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