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Colorado Springs campaign aims to curb panhandling by redirecting donations

May 30, 2018 Updated: May 31, 2018 at 10:02 am
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The message put on the new signs that have been put up at busy intersections is meant to discourage those who give money to panhandlers. An intersection on S. Nevada Ave. is where Lonnie Kaplan regularly "flies a sign". He is given money by a driver in a passing car on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. The signs encourage that money be given instead to local agencies that help those in need. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

After a series of controversial and failed attempts to curtail panhandling in downtown Colorado Springs, a new campaign from the city is asking residents to give money differently.

The city's traffic department hoisted 65 signs at strategic spots around the city Wednesday with the message "HANDOUTS DON'T HELP" and "HELP LOCAL AGENCIES PROVIDE SERVICES," said Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator. The signs are part of the newlyminted HelpCOS campaign, encouraging people to donate online or by text.

Donations will be held by the Pikes Peak Area United Way, which will grant all of the money annually to the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a local consortium of charitable organizations, city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said. The Continuum of Care will then allocate the donations to different member organizations.

Giving money to those specialized organizations is the best way to know how money will be spent, Phelps said.

The message put on the new signs that have been put up at busy intersections is meant to discourage those who give money to panhandlers. An intersection on S. Nevada Ave. is where Lonnie Kaplan "flies a sign" on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. The signs encourage that money be given instead to local agencies that help those in need. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

"A lot of these programs, like the Springs Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, they have to implement what's called evidence-based practices in order to even get funding from the government, so they have to provide services that are based on evidence," Phelps said. "But when you give your money to just a person on the corner, you have no idea where that money is going."

Handing cash to panhandlers might only sustain their transient lifestyle rather than addressing underlying issues, Fabos said.

But Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said the campaign further stigmatizes a population that already suffers much undue criticism,. The message, he said, boils down to saying homeless people can't be trusted with money.

"It kind of falls into the general picture of homeless and poor people as people who are irresponsible with their money," Tars said. "Whereas there's no judgment given to how wealthier people spend their money."

Some panhandlers undoubtedly spend money on drugs and alcohol, but the vast majority responsibly allocate their money for their immediate needs such as food, shelter and clothing, Tars said.

In addition, the signs are a blatant attempt to curb panhandlers' First Amendment rights to seek donations in public places, said John Krieger, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

"The city is attempting to do, through alternative means, what it couldn't do directly through a panhandling ban," Krieger said. "If any individual wants to ask for charity and another individual wants to give charity, there really shouldn't be any place for government in that interaction to try and deter it or stop it."

Colorado Springs police stopped enforcing a panhandling ban in 2016 after a similar ordinance in Grand Junction was found to violate a First Amendment right. That judgment came after the ACLU filed suit. Around that same time, the city repealed an ordinance banning panhandling within 20 feet of business and residential entrances.

But still in effect is an ordinance fining or jailing people who sit, lie, kneel or recline on sidewalks, alleys, trails or streets. Violations of the law - originally dubbed the sit-lie ordinance - carried the threat of $2,500 in fines and six months in jail. After intense criticism, including opposition by the ACLU, fines were reduced to a maximum of $500, with a possible sentence of 90 days in jail on the second offense.

Another ordinance still in effect bans pedestrians from narrow medians on busy or fast streets.

The HelpCOS campaign is a way of ensuring the city upholds panhandlers' constitutional right to ask for money while also considering residents' public safety concerns and cries to help the less fortunate, Fabos said.

"We thought this is a way to harness both emotions, the frustration and the sympathy, and give people a more positive outlet that ultimately can help," she said.

The Continuum of Care includes organizations focused on helping the homeless, victims of domestic violence, runaways, the disabled and more.

Boosting the city's affordable housing stock is the best way to curb homelessness, Phelps said. And organizations within the Continuum of Care have that goal.

The campaign is meant to be educational, but also to facilitate cash, food and clothing and to connect volunteers with the appropriate organization through its website, helpcos.org, Fabos said.

The work is based on similar campaigns in Denver Houston, Salt Lake City and Dayton, Ohio, Fabos said. But Tars said there's little evidence of those similar campaigns working. Instead, he said, they're a misallocation of taxpayer funds that could have been used directly helping the homeless.

The campaign's cost to the city is minimal, Fabos said, barely topping $1,000 for the signs.

That estimate is shortsighted, Krieger said, considering the time city staff has spent drafting the ordinances and enforcing the laws, jail time and legal fees.

"It's all expensive. And if the city is really intent on helping people who need help, those resources could be spent in other ways," he said.

The signs likely won't direct a huge cash infusion to the area's nonprofits, Fabos said. But in the coming months, city staff will be able to measure some successes by tracking visits to the website and keeping an eye on the number of panhandlers around town.

Locations for the 65 signs were decided by partnering with the Colorado Springs Police Department to track where the most calls and complaints concerning panhandling were received, she said. If additional signs are needed, they likely won't be installed until the fall.

Albert McCoy said he's been panhandling downtown since 1976 and doesn't expect the signs to change much. Some days McCoy said he'll collect up to $20 in cash.

Signs directing money to nonprofits in the city will still provide a benefit to the homeless, McCoy said, because many receive food or shelter through the organizations.

Jacob Mannering doesn't ask for cash, just kindness. He often stands near the southwest corner of Acacia Park, hoisting a sign asking passers-by to smile.

Whatever people want to share is a blessing, Mannering said. But he still needs cash from time to time.

"If you wanna go in there and buy a sub, you've gotta have money," Mannering said, gesturing toward a nearby Subway restaurant.

Controversy aside, Mannering said he doesn't expect the campaign to change many spending habits.

"It's just a sign," he said. "People look at it, read it, but do whatever they want to."

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