Helping Homeless With Coupons, Not Cash

Many cities are adopting programs to make sure that handouts to the homeless are used for food or clothing, not drugs or alcohol

CITIES across the country are embracing a new idea to deal with the homeless problem: helping panhandlers through coupons instead of coins.

Boston is the latest to join the trend. Homeless advocates here will start a program called Coupon Inc. to provide 25-cent coupons for pedestrians to hand out to beggars in the streets of downtown Boston and neighboring Cambridge, Mass. The coupons will be redeemable for food, clothing, haircuts, and laundromat services.

Homeless advocates say the program is a good alternative for those who want to help those in need but are unsure if their money will be put to good use. Even homeless advocates admit that panhandlers frequently use their money for alcohol and drugs.

Although some homeless people are opposed to the idea, overall public reaction has been strong, says Harry Main, chairman of Homeless Empowerment Project Inc. (HEP) in Cambridge, Mass., which will administer the program starting Jan. 15.

``The phones here have been loaded with people ... saying `We love it,' `we endorse it,' and `we'll get behind it,' '' Mr. Main says.

There have been similar outpourings of enthusiasm in the other cities that have launched coupon programs - including Baltimore, Seattle, Berkeley, Calif., and New Haven, Conn.

Berkeley's program, which began 2 1/2 years ago, currently has 150 participating businesses and is continuing to expand, says Rebecca Rhine, vice president of the program's board of directors. Since the program began, aggressive panhandling has been curbed, she says.

``People who feel sorry for panhandlers and want to help them aren't necessarily serving them if they help them stay drunk,'' Ms. Rhine says.

Fred Karnas, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, notes an overall feeling of ``compassion fatigue'' when it comes to the homeless. Some cities such as Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Francisco have banned ``aggressive panhandling,'' defined as blocking people, following them, or touching them.

Although the coupon programs do provide some help, they do not address the overall problem of homelessness, Mr. Karnas points out. ``Our biggest concern is that people will see the coupons as their response to homelessness when in fact we need a much larger vision in addressing the larger issues of jobs and housing,'' he says.

Coupons aren't the only new idea for helping homeless people. Boston's HEP, like groups in other cities, runs a newspaper for the homeless, Spare Change. The newspaper hires 252 homeless people and has recently expanded to different offices throughout the state. The monthly paper sells 30,000 copies a month, Main says.

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