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MSW student’s research could advance debate over panhandling in Durham

By Susan White

The debate over curbing panhandling in the city of Durham has been at a standstill for a few years, but homeless advocates say an MSW student’s recent research on the topic could help the city inch a step closer toward a long-term solution for ending homelessness.

Ben Bradley, an advanced standing student at UNC’s School of Social Work, produced the study, which examined attempts across the country to eliminate panhandling. Bradley found that although many cities now have laws banning the practice, the ordinances appear to be largely ineffective because they do not address the “underlying problem” of unemployment, lack of affordable housing or the mental health needs of the homeless.

“… Criminalizing this issue is not, in any way, a real or lasting intervention,” Bradley noted in the study. “Penalizing people who are already in disempowered positions does very little. Policymakers should remember that panhandling, contrary to some exaggerations, is not a profitable venture and is taken up by those who have already fallen on difficult circumstances.”

Bradley conducted the research as part of his field placement this semester with the Durham System of Care, and for The Durham Center, which manages mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse services in Durham County. In his study, Bradley focused on intervention efforts in Atlanta, Denver, Nashville, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., and Akron, Ohio.

Overall, he found that more data and additional studies are needed because cities have not done a sufficient job of tracking how bans and other campaigns to eliminate panhandling are affecting the problem. Additionally, there must be a better understanding of why people panhandle, he said. If cities or counties adopt programs to discourage giving money to panhandlers, as some have done, those efforts should be supplemented with community outreach assistance to support those in need, Bradley added.

“The key to all of this is more resources and more help and assistance for these people because they have serious, chronic needs,” he said.

“There’s no simple quick fix. Hopefully the report will be illuminating to people that you can’t just crack down, and that will be that.”

Bradley’s work is already earning attention, especially among those who work directly with the homeless. “We’re very proud of him,” said Ann Oshel, director of the Durham System of Care.

“I think part of where his research could help with these conversations is not only in questioning what is politically the right thing to do but in addressing what does help. Among homeless and housing providers, nobody wants to criminalize how somebody survives.”

There are an estimated 675 people classified as homeless in Durham County, a 26 percent increase over last year, according to a recent county survey. The survey did not address panhandling.

Begging, especially from aggressive panhandlers along highways and near downtown businesses, has long been debated as a safety issue, a distraction to drivers and a public nuisance, Oshel said. Those issues helped Durham County pass a law two years ago prohibiting panhandling countywide, except within city limits. Although Bradley’s study does not directly address this local ordinance, panhandling has increased within Durham since the law went into effect, Oshel said. The state of the economy has also exacerbated the problem, she said.

“The city (of Durham) hasn’t taken a stance on it yet, but panhandling is a big thing,” she said. “You can go to every (interstate) entrance and exit from I-40 to I-85 and see people out there. And there have been conversations that everybody in the county that was panhandling is now in the city doing the same thing.”

Ellen Holliman, The Durham Center’s area director, said Bradley’s study should help renew discussions between local agencies and policymakers, about “what, if anything, we want to do about panhandling.”

“I hope that we can develop a strategy to really move the conversation along,” she said.

With Bradley’s report, Oshel said nonprofit groups and government officials have a greater perspective on what isn’t working and some ideas worth considering, including a “parking meter” campaign that encourages people not to give loose change to panhandlers and donate it instead to a designated meter. All contributions from the meter would then be distributed to groups that work to support the homeless. Numerous cities, including Atlanta, Denver and Baltimore, have adopted this program, Bradley’s report noted.

“I think he presents some doable cost-effective alternatives, which is what we needed,” Oshel said.

For Bradley, who graduates in May, the study was an opportunity to effect change for an often overlooked population that he first encountered while growing up near Washington, D.C., and then as an undergrad at Syracuse University.

“To see people just lying on the street and other people just walking past them everyday, it’s mind boggling to me,” Bradley said. “(Homelessness) is just something that I always felt like we need to deal with because if we’re going to talk about equality for all people, housing is one of the most basic needs.”

Over the next few weeks, Bradley will be developing a questionnaire that Oshel and Holliman said their organizations will use to survey Durham’s homeless population to learn more about why people panhandle. The survey should also help agencies dig a little deeper into specific needs and ideas to address them, Oshel said. Although no timeline has been established for having a formal plan in place to address panhandling, Bradley’s work is a vital piece to the puzzle, she added.

“I think this helps us to revisit the conversation in a more educated and informative way, and to use the context in a way to address our 10-year plan to end homelessness.”