Effectiveness of panhandling signs doubted

The City of Scottsdale recently unveiled signs discouraging people from giving to panhandlers. The signs are located at five intersections in Scottsdale, including Scottsdale and Indian School Roads.

With resident complaints about panhandling on the rise in Scottsdale, the city has taken a new approach by posting temporary signs that discourage people from giving out money at busy street corners.

But some have questioned whether the signs are addressing the real problems driving homelessness or are simply a marketing campaign to appease disgruntled residents.

The city unveiled new signs last month that read “It’s OK to say no to panhandlers” and encourages people to give to agencies that help those in need.

City spokesman Kelly Corsette said the city has 20 of the temporary signs on display at five locations throughout Scottsdale.

Corsette said the signs are on display at the intersections where the city has received the most complaints, but the signs can be moved if activity drops at a specific location.

The current locations are Scottsdale and Indian School roads; Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard; Hayden and McDowell roads; Loop 101 and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard; and Loop 101 and Scottsdale Road.

At a March City Council meeting, resident Jim Rice asked the Council to do more to prevent panhandling in Scottsdale.

“I think the situation is all throughout the city, obviously, but I know about where I live, and I have seen it up there,” Rice said. “I think something needs to be done about it; It’s becoming an epidemic that’s getting worse and worse.”

Later that month, City Attorney Bruce Washburn made a presentation to the Council on the topic and highlighted the limitations placed on local governments in regulating panhandling.

Washburn said panhandling is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, meaning any city ban would be unlikely to survive a legal challenge.

Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said the signs reinforce a false narrative.

“There’s a lot of mythology around giving to panhandlers as ‘enabling’ homelessness,” Tars said. “Nobody wants to panhandle, nobody wants to be forced to live on the streets — it’s incredibly demeaning, if not outright dangerous. People are only doing it out of pure desperation.”

He pointed to a 2013 survey of panhandlers in San Francisco conducted by a local business organization that found 94 percent of respondents used the money they received for food.

Corsette, said a number of different city departments looked at the issue, including Human Services and Scottsdale Police, and that resulted in the creation of a landing page on Scottsdale’s website.

The website includes information about homelessness and panhandling in Scottsdale and includes resources that are available to homeless individuals in the city and organizations that provide support to those individuals.

The webpage also includes the ways in which Scottsdale tax dollars are used to support organizations that provide services for people in need.

Directions to access the landing page are included on the signs.

The signs are the second part of an informational campaign by the city — the website was the first step — aimed at encouraging individuals to give money to support organizations rather than to individuals.

“We’re trying to nudge people in their behavior, and we think that lots of folks want to help and their hearts in the right place, but giving money to a panhandler is typically not the best solution long term for the problem,” Corsette said.

Not all advocates for the homeless agree with that, though.

Some of the disagreement appears to be about who should be at the center of the discussion: the taxpayers or the individuals in need.

The city pointed to a 2015 article from the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness that argues placing homeless individuals in supportive housing can reduce the financial burden on taxpayers.

“A chronically homeless person costs the tax payer an average of $35,578 per year. Costs on average are reduced by 49.5% when they are placed in supportive housing. Supportive housing costs on average $12,800, making the net savings roughly $4,800 per year,” according to the article.

Tars, with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said there is not a lot of research on how direct giving versus donating to nonprofits affects individual outcomes in the U.S.

However, Tars said there is broader research suggesting direct giving has benefits.

Tars cited a study conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

It found direct giving developing countries had a positive affect on assets, earnings, food security, mental health and domestic violence, after an average of four months, according to GiveDirectly, an organization that advocates for putting the poor in control of how aid money is spent.

“While there isn’t a lot of research on this, there also is no research showing putting up those signs does anything to raise significant funds for nonprofits and actually make a dent in homelessness,” Tars said.

Scottsdale is not the only Valley city looking for ways to discourage panhandling.

Phoenix recently launched a pilot program that will allow people to make donations via specialized parking meters in downtown Phoenix. The donations will go to the PHX C.A.R.E.S. Program, which helps transition people out of homelessness, according to a flyer from Councilwoman Thelda Williams.

Chandler is exploring a similar parking meter program, according to a spokesperson for the Arizona Housing Coalition.

All of these programs include similar messaging encouraging individuals to give to support programs rather than homeless individuals themselves.

Tars argued there are more effective ways to combat panhandling, including investing in affordable housing — which is in extremely short supply in Scottsdale.

“If cities want to stop panhandling, and homelessness, they need to look more at what they’re doing to (solve) the reasons people are in those desperate straits in the first place,” Tars said.

“If cities are gung-ho to do an advertising campaign to stop panhandling, why not do one to raise an affordable housing bond, or fight NIMBYism so that deeply affordable housing or shelter facilities can actually be located in neighborhoods if that bond is raised?”

“That’s going to be much more effective in the long term.”