Real homelessness requires real solutions

What do y'all think about the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership's new "Real Change from Spare Change" program? Folks have been talking for years about something like this to discourage "panhandling." The idea is to encourage folks to give money at approved kiosks instead of directly to individuals, and to use the money to help homeless people to get connected with the services they need.

Ever since living in Miami in the 80's when I got asked for money on every block, I personally decided to never give money to individuals in the street. It seems unfair to only help some (who randomly asked me) and not all who equally need help. I wish no-one ever had to ask for money, it's an unpleasant experience for all involved. I've also heard anecdotal stories about people being harassed for money downtown, which is clearly a problem, although I don't know how widespread it really is.

This project is obviously well-intentioned and has the goal of helping people in need. But the true aim of the project is to reduce the amount and frequency of people asking for money in the streets (ie: "panhandling"). Which is not the same as reducing homelessness or poverty. And this recent letter to the editor by James Edward Dillard in the DTH (found via Fred Black's blog) reminded me that people's problems with asking for money on the street are often based on misguided perceptions.

On Sunday night... my buddy Duncan and I were walking back to campus when a black man approached us.

He was bald and wearing a coat. In his left hand was a Styrofoam cup. As he walked passed us, he extended his arm and said, "Wassup man?"

Immediately, without thinking, I stuck my hands into my pockets and shrugged my shoulders. "Sorry sir, I don't have any change," I said.

Problem is he wasn't panhandling. When he made this clear, I begged forgiveness. Fortunately for me, he was kind and accepted my apology. I couldn't have blamed him had he punched me in the face. But that's not the point.

The point is that in my mind "black guy" plus "cup in hand" plus "Franklin Street" equaled "panhandler."

Does this make me a racist? I think it does. At the very least, I'm guilty of racial stereotyping. Such stereotyping seems innocent at first - after all, most panhandlers downtown are black men - but this "harmless" stereotyping can be particularly corrosive.

Have a black friend? Ask them if they've ever been pulled over for DWB - driving while black.

A recent guest column in the Chapel Hill News compares the prorgam to a "paternalistic" movement in the late 1800's. I think I might rather see the Downtown Partnership supporting the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness if they really want to help people. And I would also suggest some much better maintenance downtown (ie: less garbage on sidewalks and weird smells) and better transit service late at night if they want to make downtown feel safer.

So... do you give money to "panhandlers?" Will you give money to the Spare Change program?



The Town of Chapel Hill has problems off and on staffing the cleanup crew downtown. There was recently an assault by one of the homeless men on the regular cleanup man which did not result in any arrests or charges pressed (even though the police were present). The landscape/trash pickup employees are regularly verbally assaulted by the homeless folks in the Rosemary St. deck or on Franklin St. itself. It's not Landscape's fault, and it probably isn't the police's fault either. The police said they knew the assaulter from this recent incident, and that they weren't going to arrest him because he was crazy and nothing would come of it. So since this guy is crazy, and a danger to himself and others, and can't keep a place to live, whose fault is it that he attacked this cleanup man? And who should fix that? I'm sure I have no idea what to do about it.

It seems like an idea that will have positive results. It also seems like aspirin rather than a cure. Of course, the cure is complicated and involves levels of our society that go beyond Chapel Hill.

If some of the money were to be allocated to get a little closer to attacking the root of the problem, then some of the money should go to promoting universal health care, some should go to stopping the war machine that steals resources and spits out misfits, and some should go toward promoting a living wage.

Homelessness and poverty are problems that must be tackled over time. The new Real Change program offers one short-term approach to lessening the problems for people on both sides of it, those who are uncomfortable dealing with the panhandlers (not necessarily homeless) and for those who are in need of more assistance. I definitely support the program.

To the author of the snippet regarding the embarrassing mistaken-pan-handler-on-franklin st.-experience ~ revealing such a failure of our society:
There's a most wonderful book called "The Fire NExt Time" which is one of the best books Ive ever read in my life. The Author, James Baldwin writes with both healtfelt sincerity and amazing insight, I strongly urge you to check it out. It will allow you to see through some of the crockery we have learned to see the world through. Some blinders will be happily knocked off, and you may see the world much more clearly. And i thank you in advance, for having already looked at the state in which this society has molded us to not think for ourselves. :) (you are going to love this easy read!!!)

A similar programme was put in place in Pittsfield, MA (a post-industrial New England town about half an hour from where my parents presently live). It's pretty much the way you all describe it; a band-aid solution that doesn't really attack the root of the problem. Some caveats to the analogy apply as Pittsfield (like much of New England) hasn't historically been racially diverse, but it is interesting that virtually everything the poster and the commenters have described did come to pass.

Responding to Ruby's comment that she'd rather see the Downtown Partnership supporting the 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness: it already does. And vice versa. The Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness was one of the first organizations to formally endorse the "Real Change" program, as I point out in a letter published in today's Chapel Hill News. As Mark M. suggests above, we've got to have a multi-pronged approach. Coordinating and marshaling our resources is exactly what the Partnership to End Homelessness is aiming to do.

The money raised through the "Real Change" program will go to increase the availability of street outreach workers from Housing for New Hope in Durham. Currently there is one very committed young woman doing this work by herself. She is doing a wonderful job and is getting results; but the first goal is to be able to afford a second person.

Liz Parham and her assistant Meg McGurk are to be commended for all the work they've done to launch the "Real Change from Spare Change" program. It's a worthy program that deserves our support. You can donate to it by going to its web site.

Why are so many people on the board of Housing for New Hope in the Real Estate business?

And about Meg, it is hard for me to commend her on this issue when she also thought it was important to raise $30,000 for lighted snowflakes on Franklin Street. I think RCforSP is only another way for her to beautify the downtown.

And I see Tthe CHDP started Spare Change, and look at their goals:
2. Design - Improving the physical aspects of Downtown Chapel Hill. Programming includes the rehabilitation of historic buildings, encouraging appropriate new construction, and establishing an inviting atmosphere created through attractive window displays, parking areas, building improvements, street furniture, signs, sidewalks, street lights and landscaping.


The Downtown Partnership is placing an emphasis on enhancing and promoting the assets of downtown Chapel Hill and developing programming to address the basic, fundamental needs of downtown, including cleanliness, safety, policies and parking, all in an effort to foster an environment that will support economic growth and prosperity.

I think they are just lining the businesses pockets with your spare change. Now who are the panhandlers?

Compassion without wisdom is foolish.

Thanks for commenting on OP and clarifying the Real Change program. More info from the people doing the work is one of the reasons I love it when elected officials participate in our group online conversations. So many misunderstandings can be solved this way.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss Real Change from Spare Change.

The initiative came out of the work of the Downtown Outreach Task Force; a collaborative effort of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership (CHDP), Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, IFC, downtown business owners & property owners, UNC and community members. Real Change from Spare Change has two goals: provide financial support to the street outreach program in Orange County and educate the community on the issues of homelessness and panhandling.

The CHN guest columnist made an assumption that Real Change is not supportive of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness when in fact it is. The Orange County Partnership was one of the first endorsers of Real Change. The CHDP is not trying to do the work of 10-Year Plan but rather support it; and with Real Change from Spare Change that support is financial.

Strategy 1.1 of Goal 1 of the 10- Year Plan is to establish an assertive outreach program; Real Change from Spare Change raises funds that go directly to the street outreach program that we have here in Orange County that started last spring. It's an amazing program that has been effective in Durham and is already making gains here.

Street outreach workers go out to clients and find out what their specific needs are; then work with them to meet those needs. Their individual issues and problems are addressed by the outreach workers.

The assumption that Real Change from Spare Change is attempting to simply remove panhandlers from the streets is wrong. That would be a losing game with completely ineffective results. I am one of the event coordinators of Project Homeless Connect (the first annual event took place in October) and we launched Real Change from Spare Change in November at our annual meeting. Just like the 10-Year Plan we are in the beginning stages of effectively addressing homelessness in our community. I and CHDP are committed to the 10-Year Plan and Real Change from Spare Change. Please visit the website: for more information on both the 10-Year Plan, Real Change and how community members can get involved.

Some pretty wildly differing views on this are being expressed in this thread. Here is my take on the issue:

1. Sure, the Spare Change program is great and I fully support it. But I don't expect it will do much.
2. Students will continue to give to panhandlers and these latter will continue to make the street look creepy.
3. Panhandlers see it as a job - look sloppy and hold up a hand-scrawled sign and people who need to feel good will give you their change. Then head on home with your earnings.
4. As for the crazies and the alcoholics, they will continue hanging about. The 10-year program is meant for them, to house them, which is great. But what do you think they are going to do when they get tired of being inside all alone and need to get out? Why, they'll come hang out downtown.
5. The downtown belongs to them too. They have just as much right to hang out there as you and I, no matter how much we would like our town to look better.

So what to do?

1. Next time you vote, vote for candidates who will undue the damage done to public services over the last years.
2. Think creatively about how to really deal with homelessness, beyond just putting the money in fancy housing for a few. Think about giving these folks something to do, rather than idle their time away downtown.
3. Act with the university to tackle the panhandling issue at its core, namely the student population of providers.
4. Up the cleaning and beautification schedule of downtown. It is a high-need area and needs additional attention for it.

Meg, Can you provide some evidence to back up your statement: "It's an amazing program that has been effective in Durham and is already making gains here."

I have scoured the internet and only found that Liz Parham was kind of in favor of ordinances to ban pan handling; "Liz Parham noted that that's why so many towns had in their ordinances that panhandling is not allowed within a certain radius of a doorway, to address streets like Franklin Street."


Oh and are you telling us the goal of CHDP is not to make the downtown "appear more safe" by getting rid of the panhandlers? There is a lot of what CHDP has proclaimed on the internet.

Oh again, and don't you think $30,000 for street decorations could have paid for those out reach workers? Or even housing for a year for three people? How do you justify CHDP expense on that in the face of the chronically homeless?

And to all you pseudo-progressives out there, CHDP is tickling your sympathy bone with this one.

I disagree that more money needs to be spent on "public services." A lot is already being spent-- let's spend it better. Unlike some of the other people posting, I've talked to some of the homeless people on the street and asked them why they'd rather sleep in a doorway than in the shelter. The shelter, according to them, is dirty, disgusting, and unsafe. So the money being spent in that particular area is apparently not working hard enough to even keep the place as clean as the street.

I'm not sure what the solution is. It does seem dangerous that someone who has attacked someone else and is acknowledged as "crazy" would not be put in some sort of institution or something instead of being allowed to walk around and attack others.

It's weird that people are willing to donate for some big snowflakes, but not as much for the homeless people (although the panhandlers, many of whom are not actually homeless, do take in large amounts of money).

Gloria, go visit the shelter. The folks who run it do an amazing job with limited resources. It is an insult to the hard work of many caring and committed citizens to characterize it as you have based on heresay.

The fact is that some people who are homeless often have complicated problems that impact their ability to reside at the shelter or even to accurately understand the services offered. I believe the shelter has some basic rules for its residents such as no alcohol or drugs,, nor do they accept people who are visibly intoxicated or exhibiting behaviors that are potentially threatening to the client or other residents.

So some of those who say they prefer to sleep on the street may just not want to or be able to comply with the requirements for shelter residency. They may be incapable of acting in their own best interests due to mental illness, diminished mental capacity, or addiction. And...they may even want to hold on to what little bit of independence they perceive that they have, however illogical that may seem to the rest of us, and they think that going to the shelter would take that away. There are probably as many reasons as there are people on the streets.

But there is no way the streets are a better option, if you make decisions based in reality.

Anita-- thanks, I would like to visit the shelter, but I wasn't sure if that was allowed or not. I only mentioned this because I heard it from three different homeless people when I questioned why they didn't want to sleep at the shelter.

The people that I'm talking about are actually some of the few homeless people I've encountered who don't have alcohol or drug problems, and no mental illness beyond what you would expect of someone who lives their entire life on the street. That's why I took their word for it. These are actually some of the smartest people I've ever met in some ways, so I wouldn't classify them as having "diminished mental capacity." Those are some big generalizations that not every homeless person meets.

None one wants to stay at the shelter. It is an unpleasant place by any definition. From what I can see and from what I hear, the Chapel Hill shelter is far better than most. The building is well constructed, conveniently located, and the food compares well.

A few years ago in a former career, I was a major employer among the homeless in Raliegh and Cary (yes, Cary!). I was hauling pianos, and needed strong backs to assist with heavy lifting. I paid $8 an hour to new guys, and $10 for experienced hands who had proven thier worth. These are premium wages on the work corner, and I always had a swarm of volunteers to ride in the piano truck.

Most of these guys had substance or alcohol problems. Many of them had family who would provide a place to stay if they were sober and behaved. Typically, those that were on the street could not function under those strictures, or even under the mild discipline required to stay at the shelter. A few of the guys were far from home and anyone they knew, and unwilling to share any details of thier past. I could only speculate why.

One particular man, Tony, worked with me for much of 2 years. He had spent enough time in prison to find Allah and vow to be an honest man. He and I had many conversations in the truck on a million subjects. He shared stories of amazing varied past adventures, most of them leading him back to prison; all involving booze and crack. He sometimes could stay clean enough to visit his mother, who lived nearby. Occasionally his girlfriend had a hotel room, but they always started squabbling when the drugs ran short.

Not everyone panhandling on the streets has a similar story, but most do. Mental illness and drug abuse are the leading causes of homelessness, and often the 2 problems are closely interelated.

I prefer not to give money to anyone who asks on the street, as I get very annoyed being hit up constantly when I have unpaid bills of my own. Any program designed to address this problem will be limited, there is not enough money to solve poverty and homelessness. However, anything that can help in any limited fashion is a worthy effort.

homelessness is a bigger problem. i want to tackle the
smaller one: panhandling. here's how to stop it:
don't pay for it.


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