City pans panhandling 

Mark Lamont has been homeless since 2001.

Lamont, whose face is clean-shaven and whose clothes look worn but neat, is middle-aged. And those years have given him the experience and wisdom to acknowledge that it gets harder and harder to remain optimistic that he will get a good job and get off the streets as he gets older.

Still, he says he tries to keep a positive outlook and maintain his dignity.

“This is just one phase of my life,” he says about living on the streets.

Lamont cites a lost job and “family problems” as to why he lost his home seven years ago. He thinks the nation’s troubled economy has made it hard for him to get back on his feet and notes that now many people are closer to finding themselves in his situation than they might think.

“Depending on your level of education, [often] you’re just one paycheck away from being homeless.”

Until he gets his life back together, Lamont is relying on the goodwill of the people of Indianapolis to help him get by.  

Friday and Saturday nights often find him sitting in front of Carson-Pirie Scott department store on Washington Street, silently shaking a cup, panhandling.

“The boxes” solution

Lamont is one of approximately 2,000 people who find themselves homeless on any given night in Indianapolis (see sidebar). While most of those people don’t solicit donations from passersby, some do.

Not all of them do it as quietly as Lamont, however. And that has prompted city leaders and some nonprofit organizations to try a new approach to ridding the city of panhandlers while, they hope, providing better social services to those who want and deserve assistance.

In short, the plan is to crack down on panhandlers with increased arrests and a public campaign to motivate well-meaning residents to not put donations directly into the hands (or shaking cups) of panhandlers. Rather, the city would prefer residents put their money into approved donation boxes in the downtown area. The money collected will then be divided between various agencies and organizations in the city that serve the needs of the homeless population (see sidebar). Installed at the end of May, the project has raised $1,969.81 as of July 15.

The boxes are a collaboration between an Indy Downtown Inc. taskforce on panhandling and the city administration, which installed five brightly painted metal boxes in locations that are often frequented by panhandlers and cup shakers.

The money raised by the boxes in Indianapolis will go to the city’s Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, one of the organizations that was part of the Indy Downtown Inc. taskforce. CHIP is a nonprofit organization funded by the community, but they are not a service provider.

Rather, they oversee the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness and act as “a focal point and a resource” for area service providers. CHIP will allow stakeholder organizations in the campaign that work directly with the homeless to divide up the money amongst themselves. The money will then go towards whatever these organizations determine is the greatest unmet need.

The idea is that if someone decides to “chip in at the box” as the campaign urges, they know their money will go to good use.

“Our city is a compassionate city,” says Tim Joyce, the executive director of CHIP. “When someone asks us for help with an issue, personal or otherwise, we’re the kind of people, more often than not, that would prefer to never say no,” he says.

But most of the time, Joyce believes, saying no is exactly what people should do. He says the majority of the people asking for money are either someone who chooses not to work and instead decides to live off the money he or she can make on the street, or they have substance abuse problems.

In either case, giving them money is probably not going to help, Joyce believes, adding that by putting money in someone’s cup “not only are you contributing to something counterproductive, the money isn’t going to someplace where they might get help.”

Feeding the problem

One place where the homeless in Indianapolis often turn for help is Horizon House, a day shelter for the homeless and a stakeholder in the boxes campaign.

Horizon House, which has been an Indianapolis institution for 19 years, offers the homeless social services, like the chance to do laundry, take a shower and have a light meal. It also offers professional services like financial and computer literacy programs and the chance to work with a case manager who can help with additional services and programs.

They also have a street outreach team that works to build relationships with homeless people on the street in order to eventually get them to come in for service. Many of these outreach volunteers believe it is more difficult for people to get off the street when their addictions or bad habits are being enabled by money raised from panhandling.

Carter Wolf, Horizon House’s executive director, tells the story of a local homeless man, nicknamed “Tree-man,” because of his large stature and reddish brown beard, who sat on the corner of Washington and Illinois streets and asked for money, which he often used to buy alcohol. This spring, outreach workers had finally convinced him to enroll in an addiction treatment program, but Tree-man wanted to wait for the Fire Department Instructor Conference, a large firefighter convention held in April, because he believed he could make a lot of money.

He apparently earned enough money to get “very, very drunk,” according to Wolf, and then died of alcohol poisoning. “I’m sure one or two or more very kind people helped fund that last bottle he drank,” Wolf says.

This is exactly the kind of situation Wolf, Joyce and many others hope the boxes will prevent.

“A better way to give”

“The boxes” campaign is not original to Indianapolis. Over the past few years, similar projects have popped up in cities across the U.S. and Canada, usually in the form of brightly painted parking meters accompanied by a clever slogan about helping the homeless, like “real change not spare change,” which is the name Portland gave to the project. In Baltimore, the meters turn from “despair” to “hope” as you fill them up with change. In Ottawa they are called “kindness meters.”   

In Denver, the meters are painted red and adopted out to local businesses for $1,000 each, and thus far the project appears to be quite successful. The city started by installing 36 meters and within the first month they had raised $2,000 in change.

Jamie Van Leeuwen is the project manager for Denver’s Road Home, the organization that oversees the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. He estimates that the project raises about $100,000 a year.

“It has definitely exceeded our expectations,” Van Leeuwen says.

Back in Indianapolis, CHIP’s Tim Joyce hopes the boxes will raise a little more money since they accept dollar bills and not just change, but is reluctant to estimate how “significant” the amount they raise will be. He stresses though that the point of the boxes is not to raise a lot of money, but to educate people that putting money in someone’s cup is not really helping.

“My sense is that [the boxes] might be enough to make a difference in one person’s life, and if it is that’s enough,” Joyce added.

Similarly, what Van Leeuwen seems most proud of in Denver is that the meters have raised awareness within the community.

“What Denver has really learned from this is that panhandling and homelessness are not synonymous,” Van Leeuwen says. “The people in the city who want to help the homeless now have a better way to give. The money raised by the Denver meters goes to the United Way who then reallocates it to homeless service providers in the community.”

Van Leeuwen attributes the success of Denver’s donation meters to the amount of community involvement that went into the project.

“It wasn’t just something we did in the community; we wanted to do it with the community,” he said.

He explained that homeless service providers and homeless people themselves were included in the planning process.

He also noted that the project cost virtually nothing to initiate because organizers used old parking meters, and a local architecture firm and an advertising company donated their professional services as support.

Having seen these results, Van Leeuwen said more and more communities across the country are expressing interest in adopting similar projects.

A distraction from the real issues

Not everyone is a fan of this new approach to helping the homeless, however.

Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of social justice-based homeless advocacy groups in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles, opposes the donation box approach and the accompanying efforts to rid the streets of “undesirable” individuals.

“You can’t replace the immediate needs of individuals by giving to bureaucracy,” Boden believes.

“There’s nothing new or innovative about this idea,” he says, explaining that American cities have a history of embarking on anti-panhandling campaigns and that these campaigns do very little to help homeless people. To his mind, these meters are no different than the measures that preceded them.

Nor does he believe the initiatives help more than they hurt those in need.

“It turns people away from what the real issues are,” according to Boden, the primary issue being that the social safety net in American cities is “falling the fuck apart” and homelessness now is as much of a problem as it was during the Great Depression.

“The idea that programs like these boxes and meters are a good way to help the homeless seems to suggest that the governments who propose them see homelessness as the individual’s problem,” says Boden, who was homeless himself for a while, and believes this approach to “helping” is “incredibly callous, discriminatory and classist.”

One of the actual roots of this problem, according to Boden and many other homeless advocates, is decreasing funding for affordable housing.

“If you don’t address the cause, whatever program you adopt isn’t going to have its desired effect,” he said.

The fact that the Bush Administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness considers Denver’s donation meter project one of the “20 innovative initiatives” for preventing and/or ending homelessness seriously irks Boden. It also strikes him as indicative of just how little is actually being done to help the homeless.

And Boden compares calling a parking meter intended to prevent panhandling an “innovative initiative” to Bush declaring the Iraq war “mission accomplished.”

“These panhandling meters are to homelessness what weapons of mass destruction were to the invasion of Iraq …” Boden believes. “A public relations ploy to achieve a government policy objective.”

He goes on to say that, much like the war in Iraq was really about oil, these meter projects are really about pushing the homeless out of downtown areas.

The mentality behind this, Boden says, is “If we can make them [the homeless] disappear we can say we solved it.”

The best intentions

While critics like Boden worry that cities addressing the panhandling “problem” is really an effort to rid a community of undesirables, advocates like Jamie Van Leeuwen and Tim Joyce, however, insist the point of these initiatives is not to run people out of town. Rather, they say that these projects are actually intended to raise awareness about issues facing the homeless and constructive ways to help.

“We have absolutely no desire to hide our homeless,” Van Leeuwen says.

But still, not everyone is sold. Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology professor at IUPUI, has serious reservations about the boxes campaign. Since 2003, Zimmerman has been doing research on the archaeology of the homeless.

Like Boden, Zimmerman thinks the boxes will take the focus away from the real issues about homelessness by pushing the homeless out of our sight.

“People only pay attention to the homeless when they’re in their face,” Zimmerman said.

From his own research, Zimmerman has seen that in general many people who mean well fail to understand the complexity of the problem because they just have no idea of how the homeless really live.

Zimmerman and his research assistant Jessica Welch recently published an article based on their research, which examined the types of items homeless individuals often leave behind in their temporary shelters. A large number of toiletries are frequently found, most often donations from local churches.

“For the homeless not to have greasy hair or not to smell would make them easier to deal with,” Zimmerman notes, “but the reality is that using hair conditioner isn’t all that realistic when you don’t have water.”

Similarly, their research found that while churches often bring the homeless canned food, they also rarely think to bring can openers and, as a result, much of the food ends up thrown away.

In much the same way that these types of well-intentioned donations reflect a lack of understanding of the practical daily needs of the homeless, Zimmerman and others worry that the boxes reflect a misunderstanding of homeless people who live their lives outside of the shelters and are being excluded from the money raised by the boxes campaign.

“The shelters are part of the solution but not the whole solution,” Zimmerman says.

Demand frequently exceeds supply where shelters are concerned, particularly in bad weather. It is not rare for homeless individuals to be turned away from area shelters for lack of space. And with limited resources, those who need help the most are often unaware of social service providers or even the locations of shelters. Still others are unwilling to adopt the usually religious, often stringent, conditions attached to accepting help at a shelter.

“As often as not,” according to Zimmerman and Welch, “people don’t go to the service providers because that can involve certain ‘costs’ that they would rather avoid.” These costs often include subtle forms of religious indoctrination that accompany accepting a bed at one of the shelters (all of the overnight shelters in Indianapolis are operated by religious groups). Other “costs” are the regimentation and rules that even secular centers may impose, that often “feel like jail.”

Welch also cites the very real need to protect “your person and your stuff” while in the shelters. Homeless herself for a brief time several years ago while living in Southern California, Welch, who is now a senior at IUPUI and has volunteered at Horizon House, emphasizes that while the shelters do a good job with the resources they have, fights and thefts occur often enough that such concerns are justified.

Welch believes there should be some consideration for the homeless who don’t want to go to the shelters and won’t benefit from the boxes donations. She doesn’t mind giving money to people who prefer the street to the shelters and service providers for whatever reason, because “It does enable them to survive to some extent.

“I don’t think, in general, giving people money is preventing them from getting the help they need,” Welch explained. Like Boden and Zimmerman, she knows that the issues that cause homelessness are generally much bigger than problems of an individual.

A great need

While the debate over the boxes campaign is likely to continue, particularly as allegations of police harassment of panhandlers increase (see sidebar), those who work to help the homeless are grateful for any increased funding coming their way, no matter how small the amount.

Carter Wolf acknowledges that Horizon House, along with many of the other local organizations that work with the homeless, could use the help, particularly in light of large cuts in federal grant monies recently.

Wolf notes that cuts to HUD’s homeless service dollars has a large impact on the services they provide and the number of individuals who can be helped through their efforts. For example, in recent years, a grant from HUD had allowed Horizon House to extend its hours significantly to 80 hours a week. That grant recently got cut by 40 percent, and now Horizon House is operating more hours than it can fit into its budget.

“We’ll be making some hard decisions this year,” Wolf says. He doesn’t think the boxes will do much to change that, but he still thinks they can do some good.

“What I’m hoping for the boxes is not to fund large programs, because they won’t, but to help give donors a chance to do something else and feel OK about it,” he explains.

Wolf emphasizes that he considers the boxes a part of the solution to homelessness, but certainly not the whole solution.

The only real danger Wolf sees is the potential for people “to take their eyes off the ball and think that because we have the boxes, we have done enough.”

Inside the box

The following organizations will share the monies raised by the boxes campaign:

Adult & Child Center, Inc.
Beacon House

Catholic Charities of Indianapolis
Children’s Bureau Family Support Center
Coburn Place
Community Reinvestment Foundation
Cummins Mental Health Center
Dayspring Center
Deeper Life Ministries
Dove Recovery House for Women
Eastern Star Jewel Human Services
Faith, Hope & Love
Gallahue Mental Health Center

Gennesaret Free Clinic
Good News Ministries

Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana
Homeless Initiative Program
Hope International Ministries
Horizon House

HVAF of Indiana
Indianapolis Private Industry Council
Interfaith Hospitality Network
John H. Boner Community Center
Mental Health America of Greater Indianapolis
Midtown Community Mental Health Center

Missionaries of Charity
Oasis of Hope Baptist Church
Outreach, Inc.

Partners in Housing Development Corporation
Pourhouse, Inc.
Quest for Excellence

Salvation Army Harbor Light Center

Salvation Army Social Services Center

School on Wheels
Second Helpings

Spain’s Residential Living
Tear Down the Walls Ministries
The Damien Center

The Indy Dream Center
The Julian Center

Transitional Life Connections

Trusted Partners
Volunteers of America
Westside Community Development
Westside Community Ministries, Inc.

Wheeler Mission Ministries


Counting the homeless

Homeless counts in Indianapolis are conducted biennially by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention and the Center for Health Policy at IUPUI.
In January of 2007, CHIP determined a total of 1,868 homeless individuals in Indianapolis. In January of 2008, the number was determined to be 1,524. While CHIP is pleased with what they see as a decrease in the Indianapolis homeless population, the Center for Health Policy qualified the results of this count by noting that it was significantly colder on the night of the 2008 count than in 2007 — a low temperature of three degrees, compared to 19 degrees at the time of the 2007 count. This means many of the homeless who would normally be on the street “may seek refuge in more hidden places such as abandoned buildings or in the homes of friends or family.”

ACLU suit

Less than a month after the boxes were installed in downtown Indianapolis, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana announced it was suing the city for allegedly harassing four homeless men.

Mayor Ballard had instructed the city’s police to enforce the state’s panhandling laws restricting the ways in which panhandlers can solicit donations.

Ken Falk, the legal director of the Indiana ACLU, has no problem with police doing that.

“There’s nothing wrong with enforcing the laws,” he said, “but what our lawsuit is saying is that this goes beyond the law and violates the Constitution.”

The suit, for which the ACLU is seeking class-action status, accuses the city of violating the First and Fourth Amendment rights of the four men involved. Falk said the first claim the lawsuit makes is that the city is trying to discourage or prevent people from soliciting funds even when they are following panhandling laws.

“They are acting clearly within the law, but they are told by police, ‘You can’t do that,’” Falk said. The second claim the lawsuit makes is that police have started a policy of stopping homeless people and asking for identification, which is not illegal in itself so long as the people being stopped are free to leave or believe they are free to leave. Falk said the problem with these encounters is that they are intimidating and the homeless don’t believe they are actually free to leave; they are afraid they’ll go to jail if they try to walk away. This, Falk said, qualifies as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, which is only constitutional in a public place if there is reasonable suspicion that a law is being broken.

“What appears to be happening is that there is a very aggressive attitude on the part of the city towards the homeless people in the street, particularly the streets of downtown Indianapolis,” Falk added.

While Falk said there is nothing legally wrong with the boxes themselves, all of the complaints of police harassment of panhandlers and the homeless that he has received seem to coincide with the announcement and installation of the boxes over the past couple of months.


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