A man takes his score and shoots up between buildings. Another sleeps, midday, under a makeshift tent in the alley between 1st and 2nd Street. Shoppers avoid downtown at all costs to keep from being cornered by panhandlers. Drivers run red lights in fear to escape their aggressive tactics. Businesses wait for their leases to be up so they can move out of downtown.
Churches United in Ministry, otherwise known as CHUM, is in over their heads trying to help homeless people, bending the rules to allow people high on drugs into their facility. Sadly, some of these people aren’t looking for help, they are looking for a handout.
CHUM is an interesting acronym. The word chum can mean friend – which we assume was their intent – to be a friend to the homeless in our community. Chum can also mean “bait”. The visual of fishermen chumming the water to draw in fish is devastatingly familiar to what is happening in downtown. The services CHUM offers bringing a hundred or more homeless and/or drug-addicted people, along with panhandling to the center of our business district each day.
Yet, the City of Duluth leadership buries their heads in bike paths, completely overlooking what is happening in the heart of our city.
Don’t they know the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one?
Duluth isn’t the first city to face a problem like this. Major cities around the country have seen and improved panhandling that was impeding business – and it’s those cities that provide promising ideas on how to reduce panhandling in our downtown.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case where a town ordinance restricted where signs for religious services could be displayed. Their decision ruled that “government regulations curtailing free speech have to be as narrow as possible and must fulfill a ‘compelling government interest'”. The ruling unexpectantly made it unconstitutional for cities to prohibit people from begging for money in public spaces.
But that doesn’t mean that panhandling activities can’t have restrictions.
Since 2012, Indianapolis lost or was a risk of losing 50 conventions due to panhandling and homelessness in their city – which directly impacted over 80,000 people who depend on tourism to the city for a paycheck. The city, inspired by a San Antonio ordinance, passed panhandling restrictions that made panhandling illegal if done within 50 feet of a public monument or place of financial transaction, which included businesses, parking meters, and parking garages. Panhandling was also forbidden at bus stops, by cars and within 20 feet of ATMs. In legal areas, the city allows passive panhandling which means people can display a sign without orally asking for money.
The ordinance effectively moves panhandling away from business districts making those areas more welcoming to tourists and residents.
Indianapolis also started a program where they pay panhandlers to pick up litter and perform beautification in the areas where they panhandle. The idea came from a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In Albuquerque, the Mayor became overwhelmed with the number of calls the city was getting regarding panhandling. While driving, the Mayor rolled down his window and asked a panhandler if he would work for the city if he got paid – the answer was “yes”. In the last five years, the number of homeless people their program has helped is astounding. The program is quite simple, a van meets panhandlers at a designated spot or where there is a large population of panhandlers. The driver gauges interest, hands out forms, and brings a crew of about a dozen to where they will work for the day. The five-hour day includes lunch and when they are done, the workers are paid in cash. The program has helped more than 600 people through employee services and connected 400 with behavioral and mental health services. Nearly 100 have found a permanent job and 26 have found housing.
This type of program might be something that CHUM could develop – offering a real opportunity for those wanting to improve their lives. Not only would they earn money in a productive way, they would gain work experience and a reference to help them move on to bigger and better things.
In a different approach, Oklahoma City instituted a work-around to their panhandling problem with a “sit-lie ordinance” that simply bans sitting or lying on a public pathway between 6AM and Midnight. Those in violation are asked to move along or are escorted to a homeless shelter. If they refuse to comply they are issued a citation. There are a few exceptions including medical emergencies, waiting in line, or during events like parades.
In Duluth, buskers, people who play music or perform on the street for donations, are required to apply and pay a $40 fee for a permit. The city limits approved applications to 40 per year. Instituting a panhandling permit would not only provide the city some control over the situation, but it would also give the city insight on the numbers of homeless in Duluth as well as where they came from and why they are here – information that could be invaluable in finding a long-term solution to the problem.
Enforcing current ordinances on signs, loitering, and public nuisance could also help the city curtail aggressive panhandling. If Duluth could just admit there is a problem, we can get to work fixing it.
What can you do? Document. If the city won’t own up to it’s panhandling problem, then it’s time for an intervention. If you see or experience public drug use, aggressive panhandling, public defecation, or other dangerous or undesirable activities in Duluth please send it to us. Helpful information would include the place, time, and activity. If it’s safe to do so, snap a photo or video. Use this form or email them directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will continue to report on this issue until a positive change is made.