Signs of the times
Street signs in Arlington and Marysville urge people not to give to panhandlers
The cities of Marysville and Arlington have taken a new approach to curbing panhandling: targeting the people who give money rather than those who ask for it.
“Keep the Change: Don’t Support Panhandling,” is posted on 20 signs city workers have placed at busy intersections. The bottom of the sign reads, “Give to a Local Charity.”
Marysville erected 10 of the signs at four intersections over the summer and produced window decals for local stores to display. Arlington installed 10 signs around the city in November and has ordered 10 more.
Civic leaders say they’re trying to dissuade panhandling, which they say contributes to crime and drug use.
“I believe that a number of people panhandling are not using the money they receive to get food,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said. “They’re using it to subsidize drug and alcohol habits.”
Panhandling is unnecessary, they say. The communities support generous food banks and emergency cold-weather shelters to help homeless people.
The anti-panhandling signs are springing up all around the region. Kelly Muma, owner of the Hot Rod Barber Shop in Marysville, proposed the idea to the mayor in the spring after he saw similar signs in Aberdeen in southwest Washington.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services endorsed anti-panhandling signage in a 2003 report on panhandling. The report outlined how cities could pass laws on aggressive panhandling or panhandling in busy intersections, but argued panhandling would cease altogether if people stopped giving money.
Since then, cities from across the nation have started educational campaigns targeted at the people giving out money. In 2010, the Palm Beach County, Fla., posted signs similar to those in Marysville and Arlington.
Some communities have extended the idea by mounting significant public education campaigns. Boise, Idaho, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each spent more than $25,000 on efforts to discourage people from giving to panhandlers.
The campaigns in Arlington and Marysville are tiny by comparison. Each city spent less than $500 on the signs and did little else.
Those efforts appear to be working. One man who panhandles in Arlington told KOMO News that, previously, he made up to $300 in a day sitting at an intersection. On one day soon after the signs went up, he received just $2.
Local social service providers have mixed feelings about the signs. Jim Strickland, a member of Marysville Homelessness and Hunger Organization, said he did not think panhandling was an effective way to support people, but he questioned whether the city should get involved.
He characterized the city’s approach as a blanket response that fails to recognize individual circumstances.
“There are a lot of people whose needs are just not getting met any other way,” Strickland said.
City officials in Marysville and Arlington say their communities are generous and supportive of homeless people.
Marysville has hot meal programs daily and in December, churches opened the city’s first emergency cold-weather shelter.
Arlington has operated a shelter and food bank for years and hands out brown-bag lunches.
Marysville Mayor Nehring said civic leaders started the program this summer, as plans for Marysville’s emergency shelter were already under way. The goal is to end panhandling while bolstering local charities.
The signs aren’t meant to send panhandlers away, but to divert them into services, he said.
“We do want to eliminate panhandling,” Ehring said. “We don’t think that panhandling benefits the person panhandling, and we don’t believe it helps the community.”
It’s unclear, however, that people who have decided not to give to panhandlers are taking the extra step to give to a local food bank or shelter instead. Stephen Hwang, a doctor who studied panhandling at the University of Toronto, said such a switch is rare.
“What will happen is people won’t give to panhandlers and won’t give to charity either,” he said.
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