We doubt that there’s ever been an easy semester to ask for spare change. Even so, this semester has been particularly hard on State Street panhandlers.
This fall, city officials banned panhandling on State Street and in the downtown area, citing concerns that aggressive panhandling was hurting local businesses and supporting drug and alcohol addiction. Many regular State Street panhandlers, in particular those who frequent the 500 block, had extensive criminal histories. On State Street, panhandling was organized and orchestrated by a physically abusive ringleader.
The panhandling ban makes sense. It became clear that panhandling was a source of revenue for dubious characters on the 500 block, including 12 known felons, and that it was financially supporting drug abuse. Panhandling was doing more harm than good.
City officials and community members have called the ban a success. Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel DeSpain said, “Everything is going very well, at least as far as business owners and others in the downtown area are concerned.”
Here’s the thing — the panhandling ban was justified. But the way city officials justified it makes it clear that more than anything else, this was a business decision. Moreover, while it was obvious that panhandling wasn’t doing a whole lot to help the homeless, after kicking panhandlers off State Street, the city still hasn’t figured out how to help them.
For a while, there was talk of putting decommissioned parking meters on State to collect donations of spare change, which would go to non-profits committed to helping the homeless. However, the meters’ potential to generate revenue was called into question, and the idea has yet to be implemented. The idea of replacing panhandlers with parking meters is concerning; it seems to say, “The City of Madison is committed to helping those in poverty — as long as they stay out of sight.”
We are glad that felons are no longer free to heckle passersby on the 500 block of State. But it is quite possible that the ban has had a negative impact on honest homeless people who panhandled peacefully on State, and so far, nothing has been done to compensate for this.