When is a win-win actually a lose-lose? When a driver hands a beggar a dollar bill.
Sure, the driver feels charitable, and the panhandler pockets the bill with a smile. But this random act of intended kindness does not alleviate the problem; in fact, it perpetuates it.
The vicious cycle of drug dependency, joblessness, and deprivation goes on. As long as there is money to be had, those living on the margins of society will endanger themselves and drivers by wading into traffic to solicit money.
Fortunately, the Aurora City Council is taking steps to turn this lose-lose situation into a real win-win for all Aurorans. This week, council members discussed a resolution to launch a public campaign to encourage individuals to give to helping hand organizations rather than to panhandlers. The initiative, which will receive a vote at the next board meeting, will authorize the creation of signs, billboards, and a social media campaign urging people to do the right thing.
When individuals give to philanthropic organizations directly or through the Spirit of Aurora website, people struggling with unemployment, homelessness, drug dependency, and mental health problems can get the support they need to start a new life off the streets. These agencies and organizations provide housing, employment, and job readiness services and access to showers, meals, clothes, health care, overnight accommodations, and other resources.
The proposed initiative is similar to the public education campaign launched in 2005 by then-mayor, John Hickenlooper, called Denver’s Road Home initiative. Before enactment, Denver residents gave an estimated $4.6 million annually to panhandlers. By redirecting that money to effective programs for people experiencing homelessness, the Denver campaign enabled more people to get help while reducing incentives to stay on the street.
Incentives matter. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman witnessed how perverse incentives enable street living when he went undercover and spent time in shelters and encampments. He found that those living in camps received donated food, cash, and other items on a daily basis. Urban campers he spoke with said they had no intention of accessing services, getting a job, or quitting drugs. There was no need to contemplate changing their lifestyle as long as the handouts continued.
Change is what is needed. “We want people to get into recovery, housing, and the workforce,” Aurora City Councilman Steve Sundberg, a cosponsor of the resolution, told me. Police told him that panhandlers at the most lucrative intersections make as much as $45 an hour. The average intersection probably pays closer to the minimum wage, as one researcher’s study in Denver suggests.
Making money this way is not without risk. Council member Françoise Bergan, mayor pro tem, supports the resolution. Constituents have voiced concerns about panhandling. “It’s a safety issue for both the person who is panhandling and the driver who is distracted,” she told me.
While Aurora ordinances prohibit aggressive begging tactics such as threatening, touching, cursing, or following people, asking for money, in general, cannot be prohibited because it is considered free speech.
While the Supreme Court has not directly weighed in on city ordinances that ban panhandling, opponents have successfully cited the unanimous 2015 Reed v Town of Gilbert decision against such laws in state courts.
Although the decision concerned temporary signage rather than spoken speech, Reed made it clear that cities cannot allow some speech content while restricting other messages. Even a narrowly tailored law against begging on the road median is unlikely to withstand court scrutiny. Two years ago, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated an Oklahoma City ordinance against soliciting cash from the median.
The answer to harmful speech, be it falsehoods on social media or solicitations in traffic, is not to restrict free speech but to persuade people to embrace sounder ideas. Giving to beggars hurts their chances of escaping poverty and dependency. There’s a better way, and the resolution before the Aurora City Council is the right step.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer