Since Dayton changed its laws on panhandling in August, the city’s intersections have seen an explosion of people begging for money. BRIAN KOLLARS / STAFF

Downtown group to discuss panhandling fixes

City and county leaders plan to meet today with nonprofit service providers to discuss options as the proliferation of panhandlers threatens the perception of downtown.

“We have seen an uptick,” said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership, which is leading the cooperative effort. “We have to proactively address this issue on various different fronts.”

Dayton’s new law went into effect Aug. 18. It says holding a sign or asking for money is allowed as long as a panhandler is not aggressive and doesn’t step into the roadway. As a result, panhandlers have increasingly set up shop in the city.

On a Sunday morning in late August, for example, a panhandler who claimed to be homeless was at the end of the U.S. 35 ramp leading to Smithville Road. Nearby, another individual was holding a sign at the corner of Smithville and Linden Avenue.

As the sun was setting one evening in early October, a panhandler held up a sign to passing motorists at the intersection of Xenia Avenue and Keowee Street. One block away two were standing in the median at Keowee and Wayne Avenue. A fourth panhandler occupied the corner across the street, holding a sign asking for help as cars pulled in and out of a Sunoco gas station.

City residents and workers have taken note. A recent Reddit post about increased panhandling was the top thread on the Dayton subreddit.

Under the previous city ordinance that banned panhandling at certain times, places, and without a license, these individuals could have faced arrest. From 2011 through June of this year, Dayton police made more than 700 such arrests involving 215 individuals.

But legal challenges to similar bans claimed begging was protected as free speech.

Related: Dayton OKs panhandling law change after court rulings

Map: Where are the most popular spots for panhandling?

The meeting to address panhandling will focus largely on how to reach out to individual panhandlers and connect them with aid and services.

While there are a handful of known, long-time panhandlers in the city with persistent mental health issues and/or drug or alcohol dependency, there is concern that the influx of new people begging may not know about help available to them.

“What we need to be able to do is make sure that all of those people have been talked to or connected with a service provider,” said Erin Ritter, human services policy advisor for the city. “Ultimately we like them to have better options than panhandling.”

Additionally, the group will look at ways to educate the public about giving to charities rather than directly to panhandlers.

“We have so many great nonprofits that are providing services to these folks that if you want to support those individuals then support those nonprofits,” Ritter said.

Goodwill Easter Seals and the Dayton Police Department have already gotten recognition for their Downtown Dayton Initiative that sends out case workers and “peers” to build relationships with those who appear to be homeless and struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

They’ve been talking to panhandlers since the law changed trying to connect them with services and educate people on the new law.

“I think there’s a misconception that it’s completely legal to panhandle now,” said Dawn Cooksey, director of behavioral health services for Goodwill Easter Seals.

Cooksey said some people they’ve encountered are not homeless and decline services. She worries that those people, especially if they are aggressive in their panhandling, could be contributing to the negative perception of the city and the homeless.

“That’s frustrating to me because it increases the stigma on the people who really do need help,” Cooksey said.

The group meeting about panhandling is also looking at ideas other cities have tried in an effort to curb panhandling. In Albuquerque, N.M., the city created the “There’s a Better Way” program in 2015, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city.

That project inspired UpDayton volunteer Emmy Fabich, who pitched a similar project for Dayton.

“Rather than just ignore those people or keep your window rolled up and pretend like they don’t exist, it’s really just acknowledging them and saying, ‘Look I want to help you, but I’m not going to solve your problem today by giving you 50 cents or a dollar.’ It’s got to be an ongoing solution,” she said.

Fabich works downtown near Courthouse Square and said she’s noticed how panhandling influences people’s perception of the city as unsafe.

“If we could solve this and say we’re being proactive about it, people would see good effort … and they might spend more time entertaining themselves downtown,” she said.

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