Dayton city officials say there is little they can do about panhandling, which increased dramatically after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the act was free speech and cities couldn’t require beggars to register with the city or face jail time.
That’s why officials are now seeking the public’s help, unveiling a campaign to convince residents that giving money to panhandlers often feeds their drug habits, and the money would be better spent given to charities that feed their bellies.
“We also know from our contacts with many of the panhandlers that there is a large degree that are opiate addicted,” said City Manager Shelley Dickstein at an event announcing the Real Change Dayton campaign.
“Providing donation on the spot may be an immediate win-win. But would you rather provide a donation that supports long-term, sustainable addressing of those issues or provide money for the next quick fix?”
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Real Change Dayton includes a text-to-give campaign, a new awareness website, the use of billboards and the use of retired parking meters donated by the city of Dayton to collect funds for the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area.
Some of the men and women standing on those street corners Thursday say they need money for food and clothing, not drugs. Some said the help they’ve gotten from public agencies is lacking.
‘This is what I have to do’
Husband and wife Matthew and Melissa Emrick spend a couple hours a day on the Keowee Street island.
“They think everybody out here is on drugs,” Matthew said. “I’m not on drugs. They can drug test me any time. They won’t find any.”
They said they had an apartment before Matthew lost his job of nine years working for a local metal company about six months ago and Melissa had hip surgery. He is currently sleeping outside, and she is staying with family, they said.
Melissa said they have a meeting scheduled for Monday to try to get food stamps, and she is trying to get student loans to study HVAC at Sinclair Community College; she plans on using some of the loans for housing while she goes to school.
In the meantime, they said they can make up to $23 a day holding a sign, which is enough for a bite to eat at Wendy’s and some new clothes.
“This is what I have to do to get us out of here,” she said.
But the Emricks weren’t the only ones on the corner. Another man held a sign that said “Anything will help. God Bless.” But when a reporter asked about his story, he left. “I’m fine,” he said. “I”m not going to talk.”
‘It’s just been rough’
Likewise three men stood at the intersections of U.S. 35 and Smithville Road, another spot where complaints totaled more than 100.
As a reporter approached, two men quickly walked off.
This left Charles Young, 34, who said he held up a sign for the first time about a month ago. He said he didn’t feel safe at the men’s homeless shelter and found an abandoned house with a busted out window to sleep in.
“I’ve been looking for a job. It’s just been rough,” he said. “I don’t want to do this. I want to get off the street. This ain’t no fun.”
He said he has watched as police stop and question panhandlers. They’ll run background checks on them and sometimes take them into custody if they find drugs on them, he said.
Panhandlers at five intersections told different stories. Some said they slept on the street. Others were at shelters or with family. Most said they had applied for services such as food stamps or social security disability but needed money while waiting for approval.
The amount of money they received for a few hours on the curb varied from $15 to $60.
All of them said they don’t do drugs — several do smoke cigarettes — though they were quick to admit that some of the people out asking for money are funding their drug habits. Contrary to city officials’ claims, though, none of them said they were aware of any “organized” panhandling rings.
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This is something Dickstein alleged last week.
“Since the Supreme Court challenge, we have seen an explosion of panhandlers in our neighborhood and in our streets suggesting that this is clearly an organized effort of some sort,” Dickstein said. “By whom and where that money is actually going though remains to be figured out.”
Where the money goes
Tracy Sibbing, vice president of community impact at United Way, said the money raised by Real Change Dayton will go to employment programs and emergency medical, food and shelter programs.
“If you want to spend the money, please think about doing it for people who are doing direct service work to address the problem,” she said.
She said they don’t expect the campaign to be a huge financial boon, but more to raise awareness that giving cash directly to people keeps them on the street, instead of directing them to services to help them get off the street.
Sibbing said they are trying to make sure the panhandlers themselves are aware of the United Way 211 phone hotline for emergency services, and since many don’t have phones, there are street teams that go out and help people access services.
“We have people who are constantly out in the streets and having conversations with folks and directing them to services that are available,” she said.
“Oftentimes people have to be in a place where they’re ready to ask for help and utilize these things. Sometimes it’s just easier to stand on a corner and ask for money than it is to find the resources to help you out and get what you need,” Sibbing said.
‘It’s all over’
The coalition organized by the Downtown Dayton Partnership that includes the city of Dayton, Dayton police, the United Way and a bevy of health and human services nonprofits, started working on the Real Change Dayton campaign last fall, said Sandy Gudorf, DDP’s president.
Gudorf said the meters are painted red and will be strategically placed in high traffic areas like the Oregon District, on Brown Street and near Fifth Third Field and the Schuster Center.
Officials pointed out that panhandling is not just a Dayton problem and not just restricted to high-traffic areas.
David Bohardt, St. Vincent de Paul’s executive director and one of several social service representatives involved in the campaign, plans to work on the issue as it relates to the faith-based community.
Officials say panhandlers have targeted churches in Beavercreek, Springboro and throughout the Miami Valley following church services — when parishioners are most generous.
“It is in the city. It is in the suburbs. It is all over,” Bohardt said.
‘It’s OK to say no’
Dayton police Maj. Wendy Stivers urged people to call the police if they are followed or touched by a persistent panhandler.
The 1,432 complaints since the beginning of 2016 resulted in 53 arrests, according to an analysis of regional dispatch data. Eleven of these were at the intersection of South Jefferson Street and U.S. 35.
Tom Maultsby, United Way of Greater Dayton’s president and CEO, said that ultimately people have the power to not “help the problem.”
“When you really begin to assess the situation, there really is only one thing that we can control or try to control, and that is whether or not people on the street are given dollars or change,” he said. “ As long as the supply is there, the demand will be there.”
This is the message of Real Change Dayton: “It’s OK to say no.”
‘I do this to survive’
Many residents are sick of panhandlers’ demands.
“I get asked about 20 times a day,” said Andrea Conahan as she pumped gas at BP gas station near the intersection of South Main Street and U.S. 35. “If I gave everybody who asked me for money some money, I wouldn’t have any money.”
Nearby a woman who would only gave her name as Robin sat on a wheeled stool holding a sign reading “Anything will help. Thank you.” Next to her stood her small dog named Buddy Boo Boo.
Robin said she has been doing this since August 2015. She has an efficiency apartment a family member helps pay for. But she said she can’t work for medical reasons but hasn’t been approved for disability and doesn’t get food stamps.
“I do this to survive,” she said, waving to cars as they pass. She says she has “regulars” who worry about her when she misses a day.
“If they don’t want to give us money, they don’t have to,” she said.