It could be a mis-perception on my part, but I believe panhandling has gotten worse downtown. In the past I could walk around downtown for about a week before being asked for money or cigarettes. It seemed to always happen when walking around with non-downtown residents. What for me is a minor encounter became magnified as I saw it through my guest’s eyes. Now it seems those encounters are almost daily. What has happened?
I first wrote a series about panhandling in November of 2010. You can read the conclusion to the series here or go back further and read all the posts. It was an issue I had to sort through early in my residence downtown. I tend to want to help people and I feel almost guilty at times for the material wealth I’ve accumulated, so saying, “no” to panhandling doesn’t come easy for me. Still, after soliciting opinions from all the agencies and people who should know, the conclusion was clear: giving money to panhandlers does not help them.
I always take a long walk around downtown on Christmas day. Early out, it is the loneliest time of the year in the city. Walking down the middle of Gay Street is no risk whatsoever. Interestingly, I generally have some sort of encounter with panhandlers. In 2010, I talked to a group of three on Gay Street near the theater. Christmas day 2011, I met Edna with her voluminous piles of belongings, asking for taxi fare and wrote about it. That post got a number of responses from people who said they had tried to give Edna long-term help, but she declines offers for housing.
Strangely, I saw Edna once more on my Christmas day walk this past December. Whereas last year she sat with her myriad bags of detritus in Krutch Park, this year she sat beside Cumberland Avenue, still accompanied by her large bags of random belongings. As I passed by in the distance, I saw someone stop. I wondered if they would give her taxi money. To my surprise, an Asian woman exited her vehicle and loaded all of Edna’s bags into the SUV. Edna got in and they drove away. A Christmas kindness, even though I’m sure Edna made the same circuit within a day or two.
So what is the cycle that worries me? I often see people who I do not recognize as downtown residents giving money to panhandlers. Often I guess that they are UT students or visitors from west Knoxville. I could be wrong. Still, it makes me worry. If they continue to give money to panhandlers, it will increase panhandling, simply because it works. If panhandling increases, I’m afraid our student and west Knoxville visitors will stop coming downtown because, “every time you go down there someone wants money.” They, in effect, could create the very environment they wish to avoid.
I know they mean well. Often their motive is pure, unadulterated kindness. But we know it doesn’t help. We need to help them understand that directing panhandlers to the KARM or Volunteer Ministries is a much better approach. Eventually panhandling will stop if it doesn’t work. I’ve heard Charlotte has mounted a successful anti-panhandling educational program. I have been told something similar may happen here.
So, what is your experience? Do you think panhandling is increasing? Why? How do you handle the situation?