Panhandling Whack-A-Mole

When one solution creates another problem

Give the City of Charleston credit for originally addressing the panhandling problem. Approximately two years ago, motorists had come under siege at major city intersections by panhandlers who had focused on these areas to solicit money from motorists. The spike in panhandling activity steadily increased until citizens complained. The city responded. The result was a new ordinance which prohibited motorists from handing anything to anyone at an intersection. Couching it as a safety issue, the city deftly sidestepped any potential free speech concerns by focusing on the motorists’ conduct rather than the panhandlers.

The ordinance would have the intended effect. Motorists stopped giving money to panhandlers at intersections, and the large number of individuals who were congregating at almost every major intersection in the city to solicit money soon disappeared. It seemed as though the problem was solved. Except that it wasn’t.

Panhandlers took a step back, apparently regrouped, and decided that if they were no longer receiving money at major intersections, they would go to where the people were. Those panhandlers have now descended on the King Street commercial district with a renewed sense of purpose. The Post and Courierrecently reported that aggressive panhandling has become an issue for business owners on Upper King Street and that a new city task force has been formed with the purpose of making a recommendation to the city for further action. The question is, in light of the present ordinance, what type of action should this be?

The mass movement of panhandling from Charleston street intersections to Upper King Street is reminiscent of the old game of Whack-A- Mole. In that game, the player uses a padded mallet to strike at various ‘moles’ which repeatedly pop out of different holes on the game board. As soon as the player hits a mole in one location, it pops up in another. The major difference in this instance is that panhandling is not a game. Aggressive panhandling obviously is a nuisance, but can also drive away business patrons from establishments where the activity is prevalent.

The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center has studied the issue of panhandling and found that panhandlers strategically position themselves in areas where soliciting yields high returns. Although often associated with homeless populations, panhandlers may not be homeless. The Urban Institute’s research has shown that enforcing laws against panhandling plays a relatively small role in controlling the problem. Public education to discourage donations and providing adequate access to specific social services (to the extent these exist within a municipality) are more effective tactics.

Along these lines, it is important to identify the areas in which the City can take a proactive and leading role rather than simply trying to criminalize behavior associated with panhandling. The current panhandling ordinance, however well-intentioned, simply moved the activity from city intersections to the commercial district. Another reactive ordinance may well push the activity somewhere else. Rather than playing “Whack-A-Mole” with the panhandling situation, the City needs to articulate a comprehensive plan that proactively addresses behaviors that facilitate aggressive panhandling. This includes discouraging patrons from giving to panhandlers, possibly requiring panhandlers to obtain solicitation permits, and enforcing loitering ordinances by location. There is no one solution to panhandling that works in isolation, but if the city takes a comprehensive approach while directing panhandlers to the available social services, it can have a degree of measurable success.

If the City is willing to adopt a comprehensive set of policies, it will find that it can do much more to solve the panhandling problem than simply pushing it elsewhere.

This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on March 14, 2018. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist.

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