Panhandling ordinance or not, homeless continue to beg

Story by PARKER LEE

“HOMELESS NOT HELPLESS. WILL WORK ANY JOB FOR FOOD OR MONEY.” This is what Thomas, a homeless Vietnam veteran, has displayed on his cardboard sign. He flashes this sign in the area around 400 West and 1800 South in Salt Lake City in an effort to obtain food and water.

The threat from Salt Lake City officials to institute an anti-panhandling ordinance is not slowing down beggars. Salt Lake’s homeless are out as much as ever asking passers-by for money and food.

Many homeless people don’t think they have a choice. They say they would like to be working, but there are not a large host of employers looking for homeless workers.

The job market for college graduates is rough. For homeless people with very little education, the job market is impossible.

Thomas said he works when possible. “I will work when people hire me for the day,” Thomas said. “I do temp jobs whenever I can.”

Carol, a woman in her late 40s who does her panhandling at Temple Square, doesn’t see another solution to attaining money. “Nobody will hire me. I stopped trying a long time ago,” Carol said. “This is the only thing I can do.”

Thomas and Carol, like several homeless people, are trying. But the effort is not enough to keep them off the streets. “The little money I do make has to pay for food,” Thomas said.

With barely enough money to pay for food, paying for rent is out of the question – so the homeless remain homeless. Thomas said he has a camp where he stays at night.

Carol also puts her earnings to food first. “I buy food with the money I get from the people,” Carol said. “That is usually all I have money for.”

Carol also has a camp where she stays. On really good days, she acquires enough money to stay the night at a cheap hotel. “Sometimes I get enough to rent a room for the night,” Carol said. “That only happens once in a while, though.”

As these people struggle to find work, they resort to begging for their support.

Salt Lake City began a campaign in early 2009 to deter panhandlers. The proposed ordinance would forbid beggars from asking for money and food in certain areas, such as near the doors of restaurants and stores. After two years the ordinance is closer to being enacted, but still has not actually been put into practice.

So if the ordinance does pass, will panhandling decrease? Thomas does not think so.

“I wouldn’t change what I do,” Thomas said. “I don’t have any other way of surviving. I have to get food somehow.”

Carol thinks such an ordinance would be unfair. “They can’t just make us stop,” she said. “Lots of us have no choice. This is how we survive.”

When the anti-panhandling campaign began, there was not a call to have people completely stop giving money. People were just told to not to give money directly to panhandlers. Donators were instead encouraged to give money to the homeless shelters.

This, in theory, would eliminate panhandling while still allowing homeless people to take advantage of the generosity of others.

Carol and Thomas agree that it doesn’t quite work that way. Thomas said he didn’t have access to those resources.

Carol said there are not enough resources to go around. “The shelters are always too busy,” she said. “You can barely fit inside the door so getting food and a bed is hard. You have to get there really early in the day.”

In Thomas and Carol’s situation, and undoubtedly many others, an ordinance might not be the answer. More jobs could be. Increased opportunities for homeless people to work might put an end to panhandling faster than anything.

These panhandlers say they do not want to beg.

“Unfortunately I have had to do this for a while,” Thomas said. “I don’t like doing it. I wish there was another way.”

Having an honest income would eliminate the need for homeless individuals to solicit others for money. Any alternative to begging would be well received.

Carol thinks more resources would help. “If they pay for my food and give me a place to stay, then I’ll stop begging,” Carol said.