Criminalization of panhandling, in particular, has increased exponentially over the last few years. The Law Center has been at the forefront of tracking laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 for a decade. Our most recent survey found that 27% of cities have a city-wide anti-panhandling prohibition, a 43% increase since 2006. Moreover, 61% of these cities prohibit panhandling in specific places within the city, a 7% increase since 2006. When in place, these laws disparately impact the communities already disproportionately affected by homelessness. That is, communities of color, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, mentally and physically disabled persons, and LGBTQ youth are further marginalized by these laws that criminalize homelessness. In addition, these laws and policies violate civil and human rights, harm vulnerable people, and quite simply, do not work.
In contrast, providing housing, jobs, and services to the homeless population does work. Moreover, options that advocate for housing, jobs, and services over criminalizing save the city money. For example, a chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. Meanwhile, a study done by the National Alliance to End Homelessness illuminates that on average, that cost can be reduced by 49.5% when they are placed in supportive housing. While not every person who panhandles is homeless, this example illustrates that alternatives that seek to provide housing, jobs, and services to those who need it is the superior choice. Additionally, other constructive, more modest practices can have a substantial and positive impact on homeless individuals and panhandlers in particular.
Alternative Route #1: Syracuse, New York
In Syracuse, New York, the county and private donors have raised $200,000 as part of the Hiring Ground initiative. The program is simple: panhandlers are offered lunch and $50 at the end of the day in exchange for day labor. Moreover, the program provides a social worker who rides alongside those contracted who they each meet with. The social worker allows for individuals, for example, to enroll in Medicaid and other support services. So for, there have been more people who want to work than there have been spots. This method has also been implemented in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This alternative is superior to criminalizing panhandling because instead of trying to take away people’s right to ask for help and right to survive, they allow for people to earn a day’s wage and create substantive steps towards finding a job, reconnecting with loved ones or obtaining steady shelter.
Alternative Route #2: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In Philadelphia, the city is implementing a “same-day pay” program that is designed to offer people an alternative to panhandling, through a partnership with the Mural Arts Program. The program allows for individuals looking for work to assist with mural painting through a lottery program. If they receive a call that there’s a job available, they work for half the day and receive a paycheck. People can also be connected to city services, such as signing up for a city ID card and connecting to housing and mentorship.
This alternative is better than criminalizing panhandling because instead of criminalizing panhandlers right to ask for help, Philadelphia meets some of the needs of panhandlers so that they do not need to ask for help in the first place. It is proactive, not reactive.