Keep Your Change: Illinois Town Frowns on Handouts

THIS liberal, affluent Midwestern college town has come up with a discreet but apparently successful way to curb an annoying urban problem: panhandling.

Beginning last week, two paid ``interveners'' began patrolling Evanston's downtown commercial district and courteously discouraging people from giving cash to panhandlers.

The ``interveners'' are part of a program that combines posters, brochures, school and campus lectures, increased police presence, and a media campaign, launched in June, that, according to police, has contributed to an estimated 50 percent drop in panhandlers in downtown Evanston in recent weeks.

Local business groups, concerned that panhandlers drive away potential customers, provide most of the program's funding. Organizers say they are likely to expand the program this fall after a trial period.

The program politely targets givers rather than aggressively confronting those asking for handouts. It aims to redirect charity away from sidewalk beggars while encouraging people to donate directly to local agencies that provide meals, shelter, and counseling to the needy.

A police survey in April indicated that the majority of panhandlers in downtown Evanston are not homeless, have criminal records, and seek quick cash to support drug or alcohol habits.

``Excuse me, but we're discouraging people from giving money to panhandlers,'' intervener Melvin Smith told a woman getting into her car after handing cash to a beggar on a downtown street. ``Thank you,'' she replied, and drove off.

Sporting navy blue jackets with identification badges, Mr. Smith and his fellow ``intervener,'' ex-Marine Donald ``Sarge'' Crosby, patrol the downtown area in shifts every afternoon except Sunday.

The two elderly men are paid $7 an hour by a city merchants' association.

Smith and Mr. Crosby, who underwent a week of police training for the job, avoid direct contact with beggars. But they each carry a cellular phone to report any aggressive panhandling or suspicious activities to the police.

Evanston devised the soft-pedaled campaign against panhandling after an embarrassing false start with a much tougher approach. In January 1993, when public complaints about panhandling first escalated, one local official proposed an ordinance that would have fined panhandlers up to $500. The proposal's legality was immediately attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, since panhandling per se is not illegal. Residents and talk-show hosts joked about the absurdity of fining panhandlers.

``That proposal never got off the table,'' says Emily Guthrie, an Evanston city council member.

Early this year, Ms. Guthrie led a broad-based citizens' panel to find a better solution. The panel studied anti-panhandling efforts in other cities. It found that a 1994 Seattle ordinance enforced by police fined people, with some exceptions, for sitting or lying on public sidewalks. But it did not work well, Guthrie says.

In contrast, a less expensive program called the ``Green Jackets,'' run by a merchants' association in Portland, Ore., was relatively successful, the panel found. It hired workers to try to persuade panhandlers to leave the commercial area, but also offer information on shelters and food kitchens.

Evanston loosely modeled its program after Portland's, but gave it a different twist by focusing on the givers, the most generous of whom are students from nearby Northwestern University and other schools.

``This Won't Help,'' says a stark black-and-white poster posted in downtown Evanston showing a man holding out a plastic cup.

``Most panhandlers in Evanston are struggling with substance abuse and are not homeless,'' it says. The poster lists 10 local agencies that provide services to the poor.

Evanston ``intervener'' Smith says he has little difficulty distinguishing between the majority of panhandlers and the truly needy, to whom he offers guidance. The con artists reject food and social services and accept cash only.

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