Real Change Not Spare Change

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York)

September 7, 2008 Sunday



BYLINE: By Greg Munno Civic engagement editor


LENGTH: 1021 words

Richard Laflair comes to Armory Square in downtown Syracuse so often he calls the Starbucks at South Franklin and Walton streets his “second home.”

A frequent conversation among the regulars is how to ward off the inevitable solicitations for money by beggars, Laflair said.

“We talk about it all the time because the same guys are just nailing us again and again, asking us for money every time we pop out for a cigarette,” said Laflair, 58, of Syracuse.

Ever since Laflair gave a panhandler money a few years ago, only to see the man walk straight into a store to buy beer, he has given money to only one beggar, Willie Tarver, whom Laflair says is friendly and polite. “I’m sick and tired of the rest of them,” he said.

Laflair is not alone. A distaste, or even fear, of panhandlers has been mentioned by dozens of participants of CNYSpeaks as something they say keeps them from visiting downtown as often as they would like. CNYSpeaks is a citizen-driven conversation aimed at finding ways to make downtown more inviting, more vibrant and more culturally and economically dynamic.

When people talk about other problems they have with downtown, such as a fear of crime or a sense that downtown is dirty, it turns out that most of the time, when pushed, they are really talking about their discomfort with panhandling.

And it is not just CNYSpeaks participants who are concerned.

“When we talk to employers downtown, large and small, one of the first things they talk about is the panhandlers, about how off-putting that is for their employees,” said Tim Carroll, the city’s director of operations.

Mayor Matt Driscoll put forward a bill in 2003 that would have made it easier for police to crack down on “aggressive panhandlers.” But the measure ran into opposition from civil liberties groups and was withdrawn when it became clear it wouldn’t pass the Common Council.

“But clearly, there is still an issue,” Carroll said. “We’ve been asking people who complain to make sure their councilors know because that is going to be key.”

It sounds as though some councilors are starting to get the message.

“I can’t tell you how many people tell me, “We’ve got to do something about the panhandlers,'” said Pat Hogan, the 2nd District councilor. “And it really struck me in reading the CNYSpeaks articles. What I took away from those was people love downtown, but the panhandlers detract tremendously from their enjoyment.”

Hogan said he recently started working with Bill Ryan, the council’s Public Safety Committee chairman and majority leader, to introduce new legislation he hopes will help solve the problem.

Syracuse is far from the only city with this problem, and many people who travel frequently will tell you that the number of panhandlers, and the level of their aggressiveness, is very modest in Syracuse.

Other cities have used a variety of tactics to deal with the problem.

In Orlando, Fla., a city law makes it illegal to ask for money outside of blue rectangles that have been painted on the sidewalk.

Portland, Ore., and Missoula, Mont., have both adopted an approach known as “Real Change, Not Spare Change,” which is becoming increasingly popular.

“Real Change” encourages people not to give panhandlers money directly. If enough people resist giving panhandlers money, it makes the whole enterprise of begging more difficult and less profitable. It also reduces the chances that the beggar can afford drugs or alcohol.

Educating the public is a huge part of “Real Change,” which encourages people who feel obliged to help to instead give money to soup kitchens, shelters, drug and alcohol treatment centers and other charities that provide services to the homeless and other individuals who might beg.

Ginny Merriam, communications director for the Missoula mayor and co-chair of the city’s panhandling work group, said the city adopted a two-pronged approach to the issue. It put more uniformed police downtown to make people feel safer and make panhandlers think twice about getting aggressive. And it expanded what had previously been a poorly publicized “Real Change” program, putting posters on buses, producing radio spots with well-known Missoula citizens and even snagging a foundation grant that promised to give participating charities $10 for every $1 placed in donation jars in local businesses.

“The jars are stuffed with money, and not just change,” Merriam said.

Both Merriam and Mike Brady, Missoula’s assistant police chief, said the program has cut down on panhandling already.

“I think the outreach has been very effective, and it is not just the general public that has been educated not to give to panhandlers — the panhandlers themselves have been educated,” Brady said.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, the Rescue Mission, the Downtown Committee, the city’s Police Department and City Hall all said they thought a “Real Change” campaign could be part of the solution to Syracuse’s problems with panhandling. They all added that no one should feel compelled to give directly to a panhandler because there are plenty of services for them in Syracuse.

But not all agree that a “Real Change” program would be a good idea. Kathleen Rumpf, a Syracuse woman who has spent more than 30 years advocating for street people, said the program could further stigmatize a population that is already scorned. She said the real need is to change people’s perception of the homeless.

“They’re part of this community, too, and we should embrace them,” she said.

Greg Munno can be reached at or 470-6084.

Dealing with panhandlers

Here are some tips on dealing with panhandlers, adapted from an article by Annette Wuertz, a member of the Quality of Life Task Force in St. Paul, Minn.

Just say “no.” Don’t engage them. Don’t feel like you need to say “sorry.”

If they persist, loudly say “no” several times. Panhandlers don’t like to draw attention to themselves.

Walk away. If you are followed, go into the nearest business and report the incident.

Act confident. Your attitude is a powerful tool in dealing with panhandlers.

If you feel threatened by a panhandler, don’t hesitate to call 911.

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