A stranger accosts you on a downtown street or parking lot asking for spare change, offering a heartbreaking tale of homelessness and hunger.
Should you turn him down and risk looking like a Scrooge? Or hand him a few bucks and wonder whether they will be spent to feed a bad habit?
A new campaign by downtown merchants and homeless advocates says the most compassionate answer is to keep the money in your pocket.
The city’s Public Improvement District advisory board, which represents downtown business owners, is distributing posters downtown urging people to resist panhandling, which is illegal under Waco city ordinances.
The poster depicts a grubby man holding a sign reading “Spare change doesn’t = real change.”
“Eliminate panhandling,” the poster says. “Panhandling is not homelessness. Services are available to everyone on the street. Shelter and two daily meals are available seven days a week. Want to help? Give to local agencies.”
The campaign originated with downtown merchants and hoteliers who say panhandling scares their customers away.
“It’s costing the city and me a lot of money,” said Dennis Havranek, the Waco Hilton’s general manager and a member of the PID board.
He said Waco has lost convention business because event bookers scouting out the downtown convention center were panhandled at Indian Spring Park.
Havranek said no panhandlers have intentionally harmed his customers, but they cause a nuisance and his staff regularly has to call police on them.
“One was so bold as to get in line with our customers at the Starbucks station and then say, ‘Can you give me a couple of bucks for coffee?’ When you’re paying $150 a night, you don’t want to be panhandled in the lobby,” he said.
But panhandling isn’t just bad for business, says Teri Holtkamp, the city of Waco’s homelessness coordinator, who is involved in the campaign. Handouts can make the panhandler’s problems worse, she said.
She said people often falsely equate panhandlers with the homeless and feel guilty about turning down a solicitation. But the money would be better spent on local charities, and a direct handout could do more harm than good, she said.
“You never really know where the money is going,” she said. “You may be supporting drugs or prostitution. So, rarely are you really helping a person out.”
Holtkamp said with the services local charities and churches offer, no one is forced to go without food or temporary shelter. State mental health workers offer services to street people, and the city tracks each homeless person to coordinate their services.
“Don’t just give because you feel guilt,” she said. “If you want to make lasting change, you have to say, ‘I love you enough not to give you money, because I don’t know where it’s going.’ ”
Holtkamp’s office is distributing cards to local businesses listing dozens of agencies that can help the homeless and down-and-out. She said it’s also appropriate to hand a beggar a bus pass so they can travel to one of those agencies.
Jimmy Dorrell, who founded Mission Waco and its My Brother’s Keeper homeless shelter, agreed. He supported the city’s 2000 ban on panhandling.
“It’s not against the homeless or poor,” he said. “But generally, when people become so desperate that they beg for food, they have other issues they need to address. . . . That short encounter on the corner ends up being a lose-lose situation. People walk away thinking, ‘I’m not sure how legitimate that need was.’ ”
Havranek, who has been here about two years, said he believes the panhandling problem is worsening downtown as it becomes a more popular place to visit. But some longtime downtown observers say the problem has been worse in the past.
Brian Ginsburg, owner of W Promotions and New York Clothiers, has watched downtown for half a century, and his family has had a downtown business since 1907. He said panhandling and vagrancy downtown was much worse 30 years ago.
“From what I see, there’s less,” he said. “Back when the Raleigh (hotel) had people in it and the bus station was down the street, it was a lot crazier, with people up and down the street all the time with nowhere to go.”
Ginsburg is part of the PID’s subcommittee that oversees contracts with private companies to provide landscaping and security services in downtown. He said the latest contract with Texas Star Security calls for more enforcement of the panhandling ordinance in the early evening hours.
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said it’s not the city’s intention to use law enforcement to run homeless people out of downtown and the riverfront parks such as Indian Spring Park. But he predicts vagrants will choose to move away from the river area as it develops in the next few years.
Downtown is home to many of the agencies and ministries that serve the homeless, including the Salvation Army, Gospel Cafe, Mission Waco’s Meyer Center and My Brother’s Keeper and Caritas.
At the Salvation Army kitchen and shelter on Webster Avenue, a shelter client who identified himself only as Ray had a negative reaction to the new anti-panhandling poster. He objected to the illustration of the man holding a sign and what he saw as an anti-homeless message.
“Anybody who hates people that bad that they can’t give a quarter to someone who’s homeless is a hater,” said Ray, who has been homeless three years and at the shelter for seven months. He said he doesn’t panhandle, and he doesn’t appreciate other people begging money from strangers.
David Robles, a monitor at the shelter who was himself homeless when he came to Waco earlier this year from North Carolina, said the poster’s message is against panhandling, not the homeless. But he thinks the message is “utopian.”
“To eliminate panhandling is an unreasonable goal,” he said. “There’s too many Christian ladies who aren’t going to stop giving.”