Re-thinking Panhandler Issues

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I'll be honest. The mere premise of this column makes me uncomfortable.

Two interconnected issues, panhandling and homelessness, present a moral dilemma I'm unsure I'll ever figure out.

On one hand, panhandling involves a human being who has found himself or herself in a situation in which they must repetitively ask others for support. On the other, panhandling is the result of a system that has massively failed millions of Americans, because in order to have, others must have not.

I am somewhere in the middle of this dichotomy, because I recognize that in its most basic form, panhandling represents a human in need, and I feel a moral obligation to help and support those less fortunate than me.

I genuinely believe in the value and agency of human beings, and I (like many of you) feel for those who panhandle. I want to help each person, but it's incredibly difficult when you have no idea how that money will be spent and there is an almost absolute certainty you are enabling that person to be in the exact same spot the next day.

I also recognize that this person is a part of something much larger than a few dollars here and there will ever fix.

As a result, what are we supposed to do when we walk around Downtown and are bombarded with requests from panhandlers? What am I supposed to do with my internal struggle of discerning whether this person is genuinely in need, suffers from a mental illness or is just manipulating me for my generosity?

Given my inability to answer these questions, I am uneasy about the increasing prevalence of panhandling and our collective failure at adequately addressing it.

From a city perspective, some Indianapolis leaders believe the best way to fight panhandling is to legislate against it. It is already illegal to aggressively solicit money, but legislation has been recently proposed to also ban "passive" solicitations at night Downtown.

Nationally, cities have begun to respond to a rise in panhandling after a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found a 7 percent increase in prohibitions on begging or panhandling between 2009 and 2011.

Many of these cities, such as Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., Grand Rapids, Mich. and Salt Lake City have begun instituting policies to greatly reduce the panhandling population, citing health risks to the panhandler, as well as a negative influence on business interests.

I understand the complexity of the issue. Mayor Greg Ballard recently said that Indianapolis has lost more than $6 million in spending by visitors as a result of their perception of Downtown.

But again, we're talking about human beings who should never be disregarded for the almighty dollar.

I do give Indianapolis credit for trying with its ill-fated donation box approach, which is very similar to the "homeless meters" that have sprouted up in cities around the country. The idea is that it is far more effective to give to social service entities than directly to panhandlers, and these receptacles are designed to provide easy avenues for giving. However, the boxes in Indianapolis didn't catch on and didn't move the needle on panhandling.

Despite this failure, I am certain that we have the ability to come up with solutions that respect the dignity of panhandlers without simply pushing them out. Given the success of Indy's 5x5 idea generating events or even PitchFeast with Dreamapolis (the organization I founded), why not hold an idea competition to find the best idea to solve social issues such as panhandling? I'm sure that funders and city officials would see the benefit of making a $10,000 investment in innovation as opposed to losing $6 million annually.

At the end of the day, simple legislation is not enough; a couple dollars here and there isn't either. We need to think big. I sincerely hope that from a legislative perspective and a civic engagement perspective we are able to facilitate a challenging conversation that can lead to solutions, because visitor dollars are critical to the continued growth and expansion of our urban core.

Dealing with panhandlers is a part of stoking that collective growth. Instead of assigning blame we should be working to include them in the process, not pushing them away for someone else to handle.

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