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Supporting panhandling is the least you can do

Thu, Feb 9, 2012

There is currently a campaign on the streets of Chicago to give panhandlers laminated signs so it will be easier for them to catch people’s attention. The argument is that the easier it is to read a sign the more likely it is for people to throw money in a panhandler’s cup. The campaign was started by Christopher Devine, James Griffith and David Rauen in an attempt to bring attention to the plight of the homeless. I can see the good intentions behind the project, but I firmly believe that it is off target.

As a person who has dedicated my career to serving the homeless and impoverished I firmly believe that a truly civil society should find every means necessary to assure that its citizens do not have to resort to begging or sleeping on its streets. My fear is that giving signs to panhandlers will encourage pedestrians to throw change in a cup but not take the steps necessary to effect true change on the systems that have made panhandling an ugly reality.

In this country we use the turn of phrase, “It’s the very least I could do.” The truth is, throwing change into someone’s cup is truly the very least that someone can do. The only way to bring about meaningful change is by getting engaged, both with the individual in need as well as with the underlying systems. Supporting panhandling is a weak alternative to getting involved in the political issues responsible for cuts to programs addressing poverty.

While I admire that the Homeless Sign Project is trying to raise awareness, I feel strongly that Chicagoans should support organizations whose mission it is to make panhandling unnecessary. StreetWise Inc. was founded in 1992 to give any individual in crisis immediate access to a legitimate earned income. The agency’s informal motto is, “StreetWise exists so panhandling doesn’t have to.”

The staff and programs at StreetWise provide a crucial lifeline for men and women at a time when they most need it. Within eight hours of entering our doors an individual can begin making a living, regardless of that person’s background or present situation.

In addition to StreetWise, there are many other organizations that do great work in an effort to eradicate homelessness altogether. By throwing money in a cup, all you can know is that you may have sustained a person for one more day. By giving to a credible charity you know that you are supporting an agency that strives to provide the person with lasting sustenance and success.

My hope is that Chicagoans send money to a social service agency rather than putting it in a cup. By supporting an agency you provide people in need not only with essential emergency care, (i.e., food, shelter and clothing). You also provide them access to professional social workers, job coaches, housing specialists and clinicians who can help that person achieve true stability.

By Jim LoBianco
StreetWise Executive Director

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions. You are welcome to contact me at either tipline@streetwise.org or (773) 334-6600 (ext. 22).

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