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A Note To Columbus City Council: Criminalizing Poverty Solves Nothing

Columbus and political apathy go together like PB&J, yet there’s one topic that most everyone shows up for with a passionate opinion: panhandling in the Short North.

Columbus City Council members must be feeling heat on the topic. They’re more than likely going to pass a new ordinance tonight that would ban:

  • Panhandling-related transactions in the middle of the street and freeway ramps
  • Panhandlers from blocking a sidewalk or other public right-of-way
  • Unwanted touching of people being asked for money
  • The repeated asking of someone for money if they’ve already declined and are walking away
  • Panhandlers from approaching people using an ATM

Some of these bans seem to be duplicating existing state laws – for example Ohio’s disorderly conduct law prohibits someone from “Hindering or preventing the movement of persons on a public street, road, highway, or right-of-way, or to, from, within, or upon public or private property, so as to interfere with the rights of others, and by any act that serves no lawful and reasonable purpose of the offender” which sounds an awful lot like banning “Panhandlers from blocking a sidewalk or other public right-of-way”. But even putting that aside, there’s a whole lot more going on here.

Panhandling as an issue has been percolating since last year when the city stopped enforcing their anti-panhandling law in response to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling. That decision dealt with First Amendment issues that caused anti-panhandling laws to subsequently be challenged all over the country.

Police have claimed that panhandlers have since become more aggressive, despite the anti-panhandling law rarely being used prior to the shift in city enforcement:

“Just 20 cases of aggressive panhandling were filed in Columbus in 2016, and eight this year (2017), said Melanie Tobias, an assistant city prosecutor.”

Debates on the issue are repetitive. The conversation hits the same points, over and over.

Anti-panhandling advocates point out that the homeless spend the money received panhandling on drugs and alcohol, as if this is information that will be new to anyone who has lived on planet Earth for any length of time. People are encouraged to donate to homeless shelters and food pantries instead of giving money to street people. And people tell stories of times they were panhandled aggressively, which they seem to really enjoy sharing (anti-panhandling threads on Reddit Columbus consistently reach triple digits of comments, the only topic that consistently does so).

The problem with all of this is that homeless shelters and food pantries are band-aids. Expecting to fix homelessness via those solutions is like expecting cancer to be cured in an emergency room.

We know, decisively and conclusively, that what works to solve a chronically homeless person’s situation is housing. “Housing First” works, and perhaps counter-intuitively, can actually save money while improving lives. Chicago found that to be true:

“Half of the top 100 heaviest users of the University of Illinois Hospital emergency room are homeless, according to Stephen Brown, director of Preventive Emergency Medicine at the hospital. “They come through all the time.”

Brown said these initial results show the project is good for patients and cost-effective for the hospital. The hospital pays $1,000 a month for patient housing. One day in the hospital can run about $3,000, a cost generally shared by the hospital, the patient, public assistance programs, and insurance companies.

“If every hospital in the area agreed to house 10 chronically homeless patients, which would be a relatively modest investment, we could collectively make a huge impact on reducing homelessness, and it would be near cost-neutral to every hospital,” Brown said.”

We have examples of other programs working. Here’s one from Albuquerque, piloted by a Republican mayor, that involves work but also ends with housing:

“Throughout his administration, as part of a push to connect the homeless population to services, [Mayor Richard] Berry had taken to driving through the city to talk to panhandlers about their lives. His city’s poorest residents told him they didn’t want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn’t know where else to go. Seeing that sign gave Berry an idea. Instead of asking them, many of whom feel dispirited, to go out looking for work, the city could bring the work to them.”

Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque’s There’s a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. The job pays $9 an hour, which is above minimum wage, and provides a lunch. At the end of the shift, the participants are offered overnight shelter as needed.”

Utah found great success in giving the chronically homeless housing:

“The nuts and bolts: First the state identified the homeless that experts would consider chronically homeless. That designation means they have a disabling condition and have been homeless for longer than a year, or four different times in the last three years. Among the many subgroups of the homeless community — such as homeless families or homeless children — the chronically homeless are both the most difficult to reabsorb into society and use the most public resources. They wind up in jail more often. They’re hospitalized more often. And they frequent shelters the most. In all, before instituting Housing First, Utah was spending on average $20,000 on each chronically homeless person.

So in 2004, as part of trial run, the state housed 17 people throughout Salt Lake City. Then they checked back a year later. Fourteen were still in their homes. Three were dead. The success rate had topped 80 percent, which to Walker “sounded pretty good.” It’s now years later. And these days, Walker says the state saves $8,000 per homeless person in annual expenses. “We’ve saved millions on this,” Walker said, though the state hasn’t tallied the exact amount.”

Columbus City Council members should be making policy decisions based on data. Time shouldn’t be wasted further criminalizing poverty.

In the short term, people have a right to walk down a street or sit at a highway off ramp without being harassed or made to feel unsafe, and it seems as if police already have the tools they need to make that a reality. In the long term, Columbus should be working to find real, sustainable solutions for its growing homeless population.

Further resources and reading: