Many University students and Ann Arbor residents have not known what to do when approached by panhandlers, and now the city is looking to cut down on these experiences.
Because of an escalation in the frequency of these events, the city has formed a panhandling task force to work on solutions to the problem. Formed in September, the task force is the second attempt to decrease the number of panhandlers in Ann Arbor since a city group created in 2003 worked toward the same goal.
The current task force was given a six-month time frame to address the issue of panhandling in the city. The first three months were spent on research, according to City Council member Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), who is chair of the panhandling task force. The remaining months are to be spent turning the group’s discussions into policy.
“We’ll need to involve the University community,” Briere said. “Every year there is something like six or seven thousand new University members, and these are people who have no long-term ties to Ann Arbor … they aren’t familiar with what’s common.”
The task force plans to remedy this problem by annually supplying information to the public, specifically new students at the University, so that they are informed about how to respond to panhandlers without offering money. Briere said the task force has also recommended that information on panhandling in the city should be provided at the University’s new student orientation, in the University’s student handbook, on the University and city of Ann Arbor websites, as well as displayed in State Street store windows.
Briere described the internal struggle of individuals approached by panhandlers — whether to discuss housing, food and addiction treatment options with them or simply give them money. Often people choose to give money without understanding that, for many panhandlers, addiction is usually the real problem, she said.
There are a number of programs in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, Briere said, like Dawn Farm ⎯ a shelter for alcohol abuse ⎯ and programs through the court system to ensure addicts get help instead of jail time.
“People who are feeling sorry for someone who says, ‘I’m hungry, I’m homeless, I need a bus ticket out of here,’ may think they’re providing something, but they’re really only providing money so somebody can feed their addiction,” she said.
While some panhandlers present signs claiming hunger and homelessness, Briere said holding a sign doesn’t necessarily mean an individual has a problem finding food or shelter. Many panhandlers make more than $100 a day, and have their own residences, Briere explained.
“It’s not about being homeless. Most panhandlers are not seeking money because they need to pay the rent,” Briere said.
According to Briere, many panhandlers have shelter available to them, but choose to avoid these locations because they have rules the panhandlers are unwilling to follow.
She added that one contributing factor to the panhandling problem is the increase of panhandlers coming from beyond Ann Arbor.
Collaboration with local merchants is another goal of the task force. Calling the police is one option, but conversation between store owners and panhandlers about solicitation laws and ensuring that customers aren’t being bothered is another way to improve the situation, Briere said.
She said this also requires cooperation between neighboring businesses and their clients — something that happens more on Main Street than on State Street and South University Avenue.
“The businesses are less organized, less interactive — or so I understand from speaking with them …” Briere said. “It’s going to be interesting to change that outreach between the businesses so they work with each other.”
Maggie Ladd, chair of the original panhandling task force and a current member of the present task force, said the task force did a good job the first time in reducing the amount of people giving money to panhandlers. But because businesses in the area have changed over time, there’s a need to revitalize the distribution of information on the issue.
“I think that when the task force stopped, perhaps we didn’t continue distributing that information as well as we could have,” said Ladd, who is also the executive director of the South University Area Association.
This time, however, the task force faces a new issue. In 2003, the city had community policing in place, which involved having police officers on bicycles in the downtown area during both the day and night. And while police officers on call are still available, Ladd said the city needs to find a substitute for the community patrol part of the program.
“By virtue of losing those, we’ve lost a lot of the ability to do that enforcement … These community police officers were there all the time, and they interacted with the panhandlers, they knew them and so that’s the piece I feel personally is missing.”
Sgt. Mike Lance of the Ann Arbor Police Department said the removal of officers was due to a reduction in personnel ⎯ with the AAPD losing more than 100 staff members in recent years.
However, the University’s Department of Public Safety has University police officers patrol Central Campus during the summer months. Sales and solicitation of any kind in a University building or on campus grounds must be given written permission, according to article 9, sections 1 and 2 of the University Regents’ Ordinance.
DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said that while University Police could issue a citation for violation of the Regents’ Ordinance or arrest panhandlers if they became aggressive, in most cases, officers simply ask them to move along. In certain situations, Brown said, officers ask panhandlers to leave University grounds.