At the January meeting of the Homeless Council of the Ohio Valley (HCOV) on Wednesday, members of the council reviewed their future plan for a new take on panhandling signs. The idea was inspired by similar signs posted by the Elizabethtown Police Department which read, “Keep the change. Don’t support panhandling. Help more by giving to charity at etowncares.com.”
The increased concern surrounding panhandling stems from a Lexington case that was brought before the Kentucky Supreme Court in February 2017. The case resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that an anti-panhandling law violated the first amendment rights of free speech.
According to Owensboro Police Department Public Information Officer Andrew Boggess, individuals who stand with signs and beg for money must do so out of the lane of traffic in order to ensure everyone’s safety.
“It is still against the law to do it in a manner where you are going to obstruct traffic,” Boggess said. “They have to stand off the roadway. Once they step foot in the roadway they are impeding the flow of traffic.”
The concerns of the Homeless Council have more to do with the individuals that are asking for money and their intent.
Jenni Warren, county liaison to the HCOV, said the majority of people seen panhandling are not actually in need. According to Warren, a group from out of town regularly comes to Owensboro to panhandle, treating it “like a normal work day.”
“They hold signs that pull at your heartstrings and make you want to help,” Warren said. “But handing that money out the car window is often times more harmful than good.”
Warren said the money you offer these individuals could be used to further their cause to continue in their addiction. Warren added that some individuals are making as much as $80,000 a year tax-free.
“Panhandling can be very lucrative,” Warren said. “We are paying taxes and being productive persons in society and they are using people’s good nature against them.”
Even more concerning, Warren said, is those individuals who impersonate military veterans in order to gain sympathy and additional benevolent income. According to the revised Stolen Valor Act of 2013, it is illegal to impersonate a veteran or lie about military service for personal gain.
“We want to educate the community,” she said, “and we hope the signs are a conduit to encourage people to give in a different way.”
While the final design is not complete, the signs proposed by the HCOV would read similar to, “Say no to panhandling. Contribute to the solution. Give to local charities. Go to Aidthehomeless.com to give money.”
“We hope the community will give the dollars they were going to give to this person and feel good that it is going to the intended organization for their result — to help people who are in need,” Warren said.
She said it is the goal of the HCOV to not only ensure that the money people are donating goes directly to benefit the homeless, but also to educate the community on what homelessness is. In addition, the HCOV hopes to help others identify some of the potential causes of homelessness including job loss, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction and mental and physical disabilities. She said people encountering these circumstances often need assistance in getting their life back on track.
“They [the homeless] require a lot from the community if they are going to get on their feet,” Warren said. “That’s what we’re here to do.”
Warren said the next step is to get the approval of the city commission and the city manager. According to Warren, city commissioner Larry Conder polled the city commissioners prior to the Jan. 1 administration and all members were fully onboard.
“I think, even with the current commission, everyone will be agreeable to the signage,” Conder said, “and moving forward with getting the proper language for the city. I don’t foresee it being an issue. The signs aren’t very costly and there is nothing but a positive or neutral outcome.”
While no sign locations have been proposed at this time, Conder said City Manager Nate Pagan would need to ensure that the signs were not only worded properly, but that the locations were vetted by public works and that areas of private property were identified.
“Depending on the location, that would dictate the path moving forward,” Pagan said. “I have not yet received a request, but I expect it will be favorably received.”
Conder said he feels the commission will have a positive response to the idea of educating the public on the difference between helping the homeless and aiding panhandling.
“I think all of the commission will be OK with us attempting to do this,” Conder said, “to educate the public with their funds and to help the homeless — panhandling doesn’t do that. Panhandlers give them [the homeless] a bad stigma.”
In the end, the goal of all involved is for the signs to be a reminder that there are members of our community who battle homelessness daily and there are many local entities in place who can utilize donated funds to assist the homeless in moving forward.
“Homelessness never takes a day off. It doesn’t look at day or month or time of year,” Conder. “Homelessness is basically timeless.”