Northwest News

Do you give money to panhandlers? This police department says that may not be the best choice

A man asks for help during the morning rush hour in Lexington, Kentucky, in October.
A man asks for help during the morning rush hour in Lexington, Kentucky, in October. cbertram@herald-leader.com

A social media post by the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Police Department advising residents to stop giving money to panhandlers and instead give to local charities has gone viral and ignited debate in the small city and across the country.

The department used its Facebook account Sunday to post a picture of a sign used to panhandle and $234.94 it collected and inventoried from a man the post says was booked for public intoxication. The post went on to say, “Rather than feeding someone's alcohol addiction, you can donate directly to local charities such as the Comea Shelter where your money will assist the homeless in a much more effective way.”

The post received 27,000 reactions, nearly 37,000 shares and spurred 6,300 comments both opposed and supporting the statement. The department on Tuesday posted a clarification, which itself drew nearly 1,000 reactions, 45 shares and 195 comments:

The department even made a video in May as part of its Operation Change program:

Here in Whatcom County, it’s not uncommon to see those asking for a hand at busy intersections. According to statistics released by the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, there were 719 homeless persons in the county in 2016. That number marks the second straight year the number has grown (651 in 2015 and 553 in 2014), but it is still 16-percent lower than the 851 the county had in 2008.

Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which in 2016 provided 57,128 total nights of lodging and served 101,014 meals to those in need according to its website, in a post last week made similar suggestions to what the Cheyenne Police posted, stating, “The reality is that giving money to panhandlers is more about how it makes us feel than it is about bringing lasting change and restoration to those who are struggling. Panhandling is unhealthy for the panhandler, and it is unhealthy for the community.”

The Mission went on to suggest that in place of money, people hand out bottles of water with a referral card to its drop-in center.

Bellingham and Cheyenne are far from the only cities facing these questions. Earlier this month, a pair of Arkansas cities faced lawsuits over their panhandling ordinances. In Port Angeles, a grant-funded program has been instituted to help get panhandlers off the street by putting them to work, paying them $12 an hour to do lawn and janitorial jobs. Lexington, Kentucky, launched a similar campaign this spring, picking up homeless people and panhandlers each day to give them a ride to job sites.

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