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Officials: Begging 'abets lawlessness,' don't give panhandlers cash

SALT LAKE CITY — New billboards that will be going up this week, warning of unintended consequences to giving to panhandlers, don't leave room for ambiguity.

"Support panhandlers, and you support drug trafficking."

"Support panhandlers, and you support crime."

"Support panhandlers, and you support alcoholism."

Flanked by poster-size versions of those grim messages, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and others implored the city's residents, workers and visitors on Thursday to instead donate to organizations responsible for serving the homeless.

"Utah cares. We want to give a hand up, we want to help people (gain) self-reliance," Hughes told reporters outside the One Utah Center downtown. "But (panhandling) is fighting against that."

The warnings are part of an aggressive "public education campaign," Biskupski said, teaching people with generous impulses that tossing coins to beggars perpetuates a negative cycle.

"Panhandling is a business. It is driven by supply and demand, and the money collected (damages) lives. It does not improve them," the mayor told reporters.

In a large majority of instances, money given to a panhandler "is not for food, it is not for a bus ticket, it is not for a child," Biskupski said. She contends that many people who panhandle on Salt Lake City's streets "don't even live here."

"They come here because … we are a generous community," she said.

But that generosity is exploited when it helps a person feed their addictions, said Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for Utah's homeless who serves on the state Homeless Coordinating Committee.

"Whenever you are giving money to a panhandler, you are enabling them to be an alcoholic or an addict for one more day," Atkinson said. "Let's say to our panhandlers, 'No.'"

Atkinson then suggested that people learn how to effectively redirect a person truly in need to the right organization or location for help. Generosity is needed, she said, but it must be acted on in a way that is not counterproductive.

"We need to differentiate those who experience homelessness due to a multiplicity of issues and those who talk about being homeless but are panhandling (to get drugs)," Atkinson said.

A comprehensive safety net, with a wide array of social services, already exists in Salt Lake City for homeless people, and donations are always needed, Biskupski said. The work of multiple organizations ensures homeless people "have more than half a dozen opportunities to eat" every day.

"Salt Lake City is a place of hope. We don't want that to ever change," said the mayor, who was also joined at the campaign launch by Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown. "That is who we are."

Effective ways to help the homeless include volunteering and donating items to service providers, said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit representing downtown business and property owners that is helping coordinate the anti-panhandling campaign. Monetary gifts help providers run affordable housing, mental health treatment and substance abuse counseling programs, he said.

"It is so hard to know who is truly in need and who will use (money) for self-destructive behavior," conceded Mathis, but genuine cases of emergency need "are few and far between."

"No one ever panhandled their way out of homelessness," he said.

The anti-panhandling campaign will be paired with the promotion of, where people can make donations, said Biskupski spokesman Matthew Rojas.

A person can also donate by texting HelpSLC to 77948, which "helps people who have that initial instinct to reach into their pocket to give right then and there" after being approached on the street, Rojas told the Deseret News.

He said all donations given via text or on the website go to the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation, which dispenses the funds to several homeless service providers.

Biskupski told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards in April that she believes the messaging needs to be more forceful than past campaigns to discourage giving to panhandlers.

"We're kind of hitting this a little harder than we have in the past. ... It's intended to be kind of harsh, more kind of in your face a little bit about the harsh realities of donating on the street," she said then.

Mathis agreed Thursday that the messaging has ramped up.

"I think this campaign is a lot more aggressive, it's a lot more in your face ... than the ones we've had in the past," he said.

Specifically, the city and Downtown Alliance want to be more explicit about connecting panhandling behavior to drug dealing, according to Mathis.

"We have not drawn that direct line in the past," he said.

Rojas said a citywide campaign that started in 2010, with some tweaks in 2013 and 2015, focused mainly on installing donation meters as an alternative to giving to panhandlers, as well as signage in business windows and traffic poles asking people to donate instead to service providers. Billboards were no longer used after 2010.

The new billboards are all rolling out sometime this week, including one unveiled on 400 South Thursday afternoon, Rojas said.

Multiple theaters have also agreed to run a pair of 15-second public service announcements, and the city is pushing for them to run on local news channels, he said. The campaign is also expected to rely significantly on social media.

Hughes said it is only reasonable to expect pushback against the campaign from panhandlers as well as drug dealers, whom he said benefit from the on-street donations to addicted individuals.

"I think to get this right, there's going to be some tough times," Hughes said.

Officials were asked if additional laws were under consideration and whether there are concerns about encroaching on panhandlers' civil rights, including their right to free speech.

Mathis responded that "this campaign is not advocating for any additional ordinances or laws at this time," but is instead focusing on persuading people to curb the lucrative nature of panhandling by redirecting their generosity.

Hughes said panhandling laws previously passed by the Legislature were strategic enough to avoid any civil rights infringements. He cited the state law passed earlier this year prohibiting financial or property transactions along an interstate, freeway, state highway or road with a speed limit of at least 35 mph, which he said "got the sign off" from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We can come up with ordinances that respect people's civil rights, but don't (allow) urban chaos or human carnage," Hughes said.

Hughes has long been vocal in his frustration over the widely discussed problem of drug transactions and crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood. He suggested earlier this month that a state homelessness czar position be created.

Earlier this week, Downtown Alliance also issued a call for 10 "immediate steps" to address the problems in the Rio Grande are.

"There's a difference between homelessness and lawlessness," Hughes said Thursday. "Panhandling ... abets lawlessness."