The Downtown Development District office, whose passion is for progress, is looking into ways to keep incessant and aggressive panhandling out of downtown Baton Rouge.
“We are mainly concerned with the safety of our visitors,” said Gabe Vicknair, Director of Project Development for the DDD. He explained, “I think the overarching idea is controlling aggressive panhandling and forceful begging while respecting the right to free speech and the needs of the truly needy.”
Is panhandling legal?
According to Corporal Ljean McNeely, spokesperson for the Downtown Baton Rouge Police Department, soliciting for food or money is illegal and can result in arrest. “We receive several complaints
during the week [about panhandling],” he said. He acknowledged that although aggressive panhandling does occur, most complaints are concerning non-threatening incidents, such as the sign-holding panhandlers on street corners.
How should the public respond to panhandling?
Michael Acaldo, President/CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Charities for nearly 23 years, believes that managing the homeless appropriately can help maintain a safe and more pleasant experience downtown. Over the past 20 years St. Vincent’s has developed a philosophy of “hands up” rather than “hand outs.” The concept, he said, is to empower the homeless to become self-sufficient by giving them a hand to help them up and out of their poverty stricken state.
“When you give them money, you’re basically chaining them to the street sign they’re standing by,” Acaldo said. He further explained that the best thing a person can do when approached by a beggar is to direct them to the nearest homeless shelter in the vicinity.
According to a research report Panhandling written by Michael J. Scott and published by the United States Justice Department, the least effective way to manage panhandling is creating restrictive laws. The most effective, it claims, is public education that encourages people to give money to charities that serve the needy rather than directly giving it to the panhandlers.
The study shows that public education campaigns about panhandling argue three main points:
1) Small amounts of money given to panhandlers is not sufficient enough to
address the real reasons that cause them to panhandle
2) Rather than buying goods and services that will improve their conditions,
panhandlers typically use the money to buy alcohol and drugs.
3) Available social services can meet the panhandlers’ need for food, clothing,
shelter, health care and employment needs
“Educating the public is very important,” Acaldo said. He suggested that instead of giving money, people can give out what’s called a “hope card” that provides information about local social services, including a map that shows the location of each facility.
Acaldo warns that panhandlers who are simply con-artists or those who just wish to support bad habits may react negatively to the card, saying things like, “They charge for meals,” or “They won’t let me eat there.”
“The truly needy will be happy to get the card,” he said.
The Capital City Alliance for the Homeless (CCAH) provides three facilities that serve approximately 750-1000 homeless people in the Baton Rouge area: the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room, the Bishop Stanley J. Ott Shelter Program, and the Volunteers of America Drop-in Center.
Collectively, these charitable entities provide daily meals, shelter, clothing, pharmaceutical needs, and goal-setting programs that help reform poor survival habits.
How do people in the community feel about downtown panhandling?
Giles Whiting and Jessica Boone, both downtown residents, said that they are rarely approached by panhandlers. “I basically see the same three every day,” says Whiting, who also lived for five years in New York’s Manhattan where the homeless scene is much more prevalent.
“I never give them money, but I feel guilty that I can’t help more,” said Lars Felder, another resident of the downtown area.
“I think if you could get everyone on the same page, it would ultimately achieve St. Vincent’s goals to get them off the streets,” said Amanda Norris who works in a local coffee shop.
27-year downtown veteran owner of Poor Boy Lloyds seafood restaurant, Fred Taylor, said that the amount of panhandling hasn’t changed much since he first started doing business downtown. He said he does not give the homeless handouts and will call the police if they incessantly solicit and loiter within the vicinity of his restaurant. “But I have hired several from various shelters and most of them have turned out to be really good workers.”
Michael Acaldo firmly believes that the CCAH’s “hand up” philosophy has helped to keep homelessness and related panhandling at a minimum in Baton Rouge, especially in comparison to many other cities.
Anyone wishing to obtain hope cards can call the St. Vincent de Paul facility at 225-383-7837.