Next week, 18 signs will start going up in Lakewood.
Placed at busy intersections throughout the city, they’ll carry a simple but potentially divisive message: "Keep the change."
“Say no to panhandling,” the message will continue. “Contribute to the solution. Give to local charities.”
Lakewood officially announced the move May 8, and online reaction was predictable. Many applauded the move, calling it long overdue. Others questioned the message and the motives behind it.
From the city’s perspective, I can understand at least some of the reasoning. Panhandling can lead to potentially dangerous interactions between pedestrians and vehicles, and Lakewood clearly has an obligation to protect people at its on-ramps and on its roadways.
At the same time, I can’t help but bristle at the messaging behind the signs. Mostly, I worry how the rationale might be used in the hands of those already predisposed to hurtful stigmatization of those experiencing homelessness.
The city explained its position in a news release.
“There are many organizations and charities in Lakewood and Pierce County focused on providing food, shelter and services to those who are in need. Giving to these organizations ensures that your ‘change’ is going to legitimate purposes,” the release states. “There is no way to know if the panhandler you encounter is going to use the money you give them to purchase something legitimate like food or medicine, or use it on something like alcohol or drugs.
“There is also no way to know if the person you encounter really is homeless, has a sick child or family they need to care for, or is a veteran like they claim.”
With all due respect to a city trying to do its job and help those in need, this justification reads like an online comments section.
According to Lakewood spokeswoman Brynn Grimley, the signs are meant to be “one more way to educate folks.”
“We’re not trying to tell anyone what to do,” Grimley said. “We’re just offering it as a suggestion.”
The new signs, she added, arrive after the city has experienced an uptick in panhandling complaints. Police also have reported what they see as an increase in panhandling activity. The evidence is anecdotal as panhandling is not something the city officially tracks, Grimley said.
Along with concern for pedestrian and vehicular safety, panhandling has led to trash and food waste being left behind “and in some cases hypodermic needles,” Grimley said.
She also stressed that Lakewood has empathy for those experiencing homelessness. She noted that the city dedicates $720,000 in its biennial budget for human services, with much of the money going to the same charitable organizations that the city now is trying to inspire well-meaning people to donate to.
“We know there are people out there that are barely able to make it,” Grimley said. “While this might be perceived that we’re just trying to get rid of the problem by putting up signs, it’s definitely not.
“We’re hoping that the signs will just kind of remind people … that maybe there is a better way to help this person out.”
Trying to urge people to make charitable donations to organizations working on issues related to homelessness is noble. Meanwhile, trying to increase safety at busy intersections feels like common sense.
Whether it will work or not is another matter entirely.
“Over the 30 years I’ve been doing this work, I have seen many examples of communities doing something like this,” said Tim Harris, a longtime homeless advocate and Real Change founding director. “My observation is that it changes very little about the way people interact with panhandlers.”
And when it comes to giving to other charities?
“I’ve never seen it generate revenue to help with the problem,” Harris said.
Effectiveness aside, my main qualm with Lakewood’s latest attempt to curtail panhandling goes back to the language and messaging behind it.
What’s the societal impact of selling it this way — with the focus on drug addicts, alcoholics and fake vets — when we know a multitude of factors lead to homelessness?
As Pierce County’s most recent Point in Time count again highlighted, the reasons people experience homelessness are varied. Survey respondents reported that a lack of affordable housing, inadequate income or employment, and eviction were the top three causes of homelessness.
In the same survey, mental illness, physical disability and chronic health conditions were the three most commonly reported disabilities.
Behind them all, substance abuse was fourth on the list.
“Stigmatization … can happen around efforts to stop panhandling, and we can very easily fall back on stereotypes about drug and alcohol use that are not all that accurate,” said Rob McNair-Huff, spokesman for the Metropolitan Development Council.
McNair-Huff added that those experiencing chronic homelessness often are dealing with a mental health challenge in addition to another disorder, and self-medication might play a part in substance use.
“Ultimately, our whole community benefits the most by showing compassion and a willingness to work with people to tackle their challenges, rather than to approach the whole situation from a place of judgment,” McNair-Huff said.
I guess that’s the thing.
While I’m not against a city attempting to cut down on panhandling — and I certainly have no beef with urging people to donate to charities — I just wish it was coming from a place that felt likely to inspire people to actually care, instead of continuing to kick people while they're down.