Thursday, January 17, 2008

Begging For Help With Panhandlers

Out in the hinterlands, calls for consolidation are undercut when Memphis city government can’t even manage to get the basics right, such as enforcing panhandling laws in downtown Memphis.

We’ve not written lately about the ever-present and ever-aggravating panhandling plague in downtown Memphis, because downtown resident and veteran blogger Paul Ryburn has been doing such an impressive job of reporting on the dimensions of this problem and creating a network of people reporting on the most grievous offenders.

Best of all, Mr. Ryburn has demolished the nagging notion that the problems really aren’t that bad and don’t really have any consequences for downtown Memphis.

The Price

As a result of the Ryburn campaign, the examples continue to pile up – parking lot scams where panhandlers pose as attendants to take money, the parking lot attendant who curses and excretes anti-gay screed at passers-by and the convention-goers who’ll take Memphis off their list because of problems including in-your-face, intimidating panhandling and public urination.

It’s strange. No matter how many new police officers are hired, no matter how many new crime-fighting programs are started and no matter how assertive the political rhetoric is, city government seems incapable of just enforcing the laws on the books that are designed to protect downtown quality of life.

The price of indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists. We tried to be philosophical this year, but it’s just too hard when the problem often takes up residence on our front steps and we have on occasion had the pleasure of even cleaning up human feces.

Illegal Aliens

The FAQ’s on the Center City Commission website clarifies behavior that is illegal -- when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; when begging is done in a group of two or more people; when it is perceived as a threat; when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; when someone is touched by a panhandler; and when false or misleading solicitations are used.

There’s nothing mentioned about feces, but we assume that’s at least a health department violation.

To set the record straight, this is not a problem with homeless people. The majority of them, probably less than five percent according to research, panhandle. Rather, it is an attack on behavior of a few who devalue and demean the common space that we collectively share.

Legal Recourse

Other cities are making progress. This week, the Nashville City Council passed a law prohibiting aggressive panhandling. It makes it illegal to panhandle after dark or near ATM’s, sidewalk cafes, business entrances, bus stops or schools.

Of course, as we’ve learned in Memphis, a law on the books means absolutely nothing unless the police department plans to enforce it. Nashville is lucky. There, the police chief has been pushing for the law and promised a crackdown on panhandling as a priority of his department.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati conducted a quarterly census, passed laws against panhandling and removes camp sites; and other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta (on which the Nashville law was modeled), Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

Protect And Serve

Because of our apathetic police department, the Center City Commission finally had to step in recently with plans for a pilot program that will hire four security officers who will patrol downtown looking for quality of life violations. We’d hope that MPD would be so ashamed that it finally gets serious, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

As we’ve written before, it’s a serious indictment of city government that an agency like Center City Commission has to step in and provide the kinds of services that would seem to be the normal expectations of downtown citizens who pay their city taxes for what seems like a basic service.

Of course, the Center City Commission is already experienced in standing in for city government and shouldering its responsibilities. A few years ago, it was determined that downtown Memphis needed $100 million in its infrastructure – sidewalks, alleys, streets and streetscape.


So how much was city government willing to invest in the downtown that so often is part of elected officials’ bragging rights? Nothing. And faced with the widening problems, the Center City Commission paid for $5 million in its own bonds to at least get started on the work.

As for the panhandling paradise that is Memphis, the word is out. Our city is widely known as the place to be, because of the lack of enforcement and the anything goes attitude.

In fact, a few weeks ago, we eve made the Dr. Phil television show. The subject was hobos who live along the river. It featured one man who abandoned his family and now lives along the riverbanks, begging for a living. The film showed his solitary figure walking over a bridge – the Auction Street bridge.

Bumming Around

The show spotlighted his festive party with his fellow bums. The location: downtown Memphis. It was hardly the publicity that’ll attract visitors to Memphis.

If all politics is local, then surely it is true that all government is personal. For us, that personal government should start by upgrading the downtown experience by eliminating our ubiquitous panhandlers.


Aaron said...

For an in depth philosophical discussion visit

At Home She Feels Like a tourist blog


The real problem? We eliminated a lot of government funded mental institutions almost 30 years ago.
These panhandlers just didn't have the wealthy families to hide them in recovery clinics or group homes.
So really, this is a much cheaper default alternative.

Panhandlers are largely Peter Pans that flew the coup' Alcohol- it gives you wings! Oh wait-that's Red Bull.

The jails are bursting with worse offenders so I don't see the problem going away. Back in Los Angeles they shipped they're homeless to Skid Row. Hmm..that didn't go over too well.

It's a citizen issue. Stop giving them booze money. Period. After all pigeons don't just naturally attack you- they're well trained-by us.

Is this a great solution? Not really, we're still not treating these folks but hey were not shrinks we just don't want to be heckled.

No solution is perfect and someone always get's the short end. No one want to see the homeless get shoved around but if they are keeping people away from downtown then is this asking too much? I don't think so- but still were do you put them, how do you treat them? You can't really remove them until you have a humane solution to counterbalance such a drastic measure.

What a mess.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post but still chalkable.

What do you want police to do?

Maintain a strict, 24/7 watch and arrest any person who panhandles? Fill the jails with every person who even utters "Can you spare a dime"? That makes no sense.

In some ways, the Luttrell approach to illegal immigrants seems applicable here. With limited resources, it's a waste to go and track down illegals, despite the laws on the books, because doing so could easily become overwhelming to law enforcement overall. It's better from a process standpoint to deal with them when they enter the system on their own.

The issue about panhandlers is the same. It would tax the system and ultimately be perceived as an unnecessary diversion of resources given the other pressing crimes in the city.

Your begging is simply overly emotional. It's not like our tourists have never seen a panhandler elsewhere. I assure you that they have.

Are the panhandlers inconvenient? Yes, they are. Should something be done about it? Yes.

But on the to-do list, are they a priority? See, we're back where we started.

Aaron said...

exactly: With limited resources it's an endless loop.

There are many "solutions" as long as you don't look at the whole picture.

Smart City Consulting said...

Believe us, none of us who have to contend daily with this problem in the heart of downtown Memphis give these panhandlers money. The problem does not and is not going away, until there is the civic expectation that this behavior is not expected to be part of urban living. They can sleep in the alleys and they can do do whatever they want to do as long as they quit making downtown a hostile place.

And anonymous, frankly, yes, we do want the police to maintain a 24-hour vigilance. There are options other than throwing them in Shelby County Jail. We need to be inventive - there's the need for the detox unit that worked so well here several years ago. And, the drug court for example has shown that there are alternative ways to address the core of the problem rather than creating a revolving door of offenders.

For us, it's a cop-out to say that there's nothing we can do. We travel to a lot of cities in our work, and believe us, there is no city like Memphis. When we talk to these fellows, they tell us that they are here because they know there is little risk attached to it. Back in the summer, one guy even said he had to leave Atlanta and now sets up camp in Memphis during the warm months.

As for whether panhandling should be a priority, that's the problem with Memphis. Creating a livable city isn't just about dealing with whatever seems to be the top priorities. It's about dealing with the maze of issues that create a high quality of life. It's not about a rifle approach to urban living; it's about a shotgun of programs and projects that together converge to create a better, happier, more fulfilling city.

Most of these pandhandlers are alcoholics and they need our help. Most of them are not homeless, and some of them even are dropped off each day to ply their craft.

We need to set up a system that offers them detoxification and job training. We suspect that the pandhandling problem would disappear - mainly because they'll all move.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who works or lives downtown knows that the problem is getting worse. We've got more bums downtown than six months ago, and surprise, surprise, we have a surge of car windows smashed in. They are all over us between the Peabody and Beale Street. And because Memphis is known as a place where you can get away with anything, we are now being overrun with pandhandlers in midtown. They're like roaches; they multiply unless we do something about them. To all of you who think we should just suck it up and live with them, next time you find roaches in your house, just leave them alone, they really don't cause any problems. You should learn to live with them.

Anonymous said...

I'm not interested in a philosophical discussion by fearlessvk or anyone else. I'm interested in Memphis solving a problem that's in my face every day. We're way past the point of philosophy.

MRC-T said...

While nobody should be harassed walking down the street, what can realistically be done to stop this? If you restrict panhandlers from downtown, where do they go? Do they go to Midtown? Germantown? Do they pursue other means to find money? And if they do, do they find jobs or do they resort to other illegal activities? If you put them in our extremely overcrowded prison system do they suddenly decide not to panhandle when they get out?

Other cities are making progress. This week, the Nashville City Council passed a law prohibiting aggressive panhandling. It makes it illegal to panhandle after dark or near ATM’s, sidewalk cafes, business entrances, bus stops or schools.

Of course, as we’ve learned in Memphis, a law on the books means absolutely nothing unless the police department plans to enforce it. Nashville is lucky. There, the police chief has been pushing for the law and promised a crackdown on panhandling as a priority of his department.

Has Nashville actually progressed in solving this problem, or do they just have an additional law on the books and yet another government-type making promises? What are the stats or anecdotal stories to show the actual progress Nashville has made?

I honestly do not see the 'panhandling problem' in Memphis as being any worse than any other city in the world. And there are some cities/countries where it seems worse to me. These things do not stop me from walking around in Memphis or in any other city in the world though.

I am sure your intent is good with wanting to solve the 'panhandling problem,' but simply keeping them out of our collective view is not actually solving any problem. Do I have a detailed solution to solving this problem? No. Do I have some ideas? Yes, but they are long term solutions and involve getting to the ROOTS of the issue, and unfortunately in the land of 'democratic process' short-term solutions are far more important than long-term because short-term solutions get the politicians re-elected, long-term solutions don't.

MRC-T said...

To the anonymous poster prior to mine... if you are comparing these people to cockroaches are you also suggesting we kill them? Also, have you ever lived in a place infested with actual cockroaches? I have, and the thing I learned? No matter how many I killed, more came. Cockroaches will outlast all humans, I guarantee it.

Aaron said...

The steps of recovery that lie between the detox and job training
are not straightforward.

It is very hard to unteach self-destructive habits, mental illness, narcissism and every other imaginable malady that got these folks where they are.

Job training programs work well with people that are well and desire to do something with their lives. As it stands we need more jobs and programs for the low-income people that do have the drive and motivation. Focus on these folks and perhaps long-term the pandhandler populuation may dwindle.

I am not advocating throwing up our hands, rather trying to show you the reality of attempting to tackle such a mammoth complex issue.

There are very few people that truly have the passion, doggedness and perserverance to doing what it takes to put panhandlers onto a path of wellness. Can we expect the government to provide the support structure that is required?
We did this and it's gone now.

I defer to your expertise as you've seen other cities do a better job. So maybe there is hope for a humane wholistic approach.

Aaron said...

MRC-t: Nuff said. I am in awe.

Smart City Consulting said...

Part of the reason that Memphis has an influx of panhandlers is because other cities are in fact being successful in their combination of social programs and legal avenues. We now have panhandlers from Little Rock, Atlanta, and soon, we'll get the ones from Nashville. The difference in Nashville is that the police chief has made this a priority for two years, has been pushing for the law and will vigorously enforce it. He sees it as a quality of life issue that undermines Nashville's tourism and convention messages, not to mention makes downtown less inviting to residents and visitors alike.

Again, we emphasize: There are panhandlers and there are homeless. The homeless are willing to engage in programs and do every day. In truth, we do not help people in the grips of alcoholism by allowing them to live on the streets and beg for a living. It's as if we're willing to accept the premise that there are people who are just throw away men and women and we don't have to worry about them.

Other cities have people living in alleys and sleeping over grates, but even the ones that were most egregious - like Washington, D.C. - are hard to measure up with Memphis right now. But here's the thing, in other cities, you may see these people, but it is rare, very rare, to deal with an aggressive panhandler, and that's something we do downtown every single day.

Also, those of you who are interested in discussing this and hearing from some policemen on the subject, you should contact Paul Ryburn to become part of this Google group.

Smart City Consulting said...

Aaron: I guess to repeat a psychiatrist friend of mine, first, let's stop the behavior, then we'll turn our attention to the causes and solutions. We agree with the comprehensive approach, but like the crimes that accompany drug addiction, first, we have to stop the anti-social behavior.

We agree with what you are saying.

fearlessvk said...

I know I've probably earned the reputation as that nut who loves panhandlers, but i have a sincere and (i hope) fair question & analogy:

when the clinton administration buckled and signed the welfare reform bill, we were soon hearing triumphalist rhetoric about how successful it was because of the declining number of people on welfare. what we never heard about was what actually happened to the people who were kicked off welfare. had they found decent employment? were they taking care of their families adequately? did they return to school, go into job training programs? there was virtually no effort to track the real, lived consequences of the welfare reform bill on actual welfare recipients.

i have the same question about cities who have implemented "successful" anti-panhandling measures. when the panhandlers disappear from a city center, has anybody attempted to figure out where they go? have they just moved to another part of the city? moved to a different city? remained on the street, but stopped panhandling? gotten jobs? cleaned up their addictions?

believe it or not, i too would like to see fewer panhandlers on the streets of memphis (and other cities too). i'm just wary about waving the "success!" flag before we actually know what is becoming of these people. especially if they're just moving elsewhere or completely falling through the cracks.

finally, just a brief observation: when people who are somewhat critical of the anti-panhandling movement in memphis bring up the homeless, they are instantly called to task, reminded that panhandlers are not homeless. but very often, the same line is blurred when the anti-panhandling critics start about how "unsightly" downtown memphis is. in your own post, you mention a segment on dr. phil covering "hobos who live along the river" - people who live on the river are, in fact, homeless. it's something of a feint, then, to keep reminding us that panhandlers are not homeless and this has nothing to do with the homeless. panhandlers are an especially easy target, but my impression is that a lot of people would like to the "street people" of downtown memphis disappear from sight whether or not they are panhandling.

i am not just trying to be a shit-stirrer here. mostly i am just bowled over by the intransigence of the problem, and concerned that the "solutions" that other cities have found aren't really solutions at all.

fearlessvk said...

i'm sorry, i should have read mrc's comment more fully before posting. it seems i've just repeated everything she already said!

Smart City Consulting said...

fearless: It's always good to hear from you,and to those not paying attention, author of a blog everyone in Memphis needs to be reading. We'll try to do some research when we get time between our business, but it seems like Cincinnati may have started effective safety net programs as part of its anti-panhandling charge. There are ways to do both, and a number of cities have done it. By the way, we think some of the crack-downs have been egregious, such as requiring panhandlers to have government ID's. That said, I guess we get emotional about this because we can smell the urine in the summer time, we ask the guy to move off the grate in front of our place in the winter time and occasionally clean up his feces and hose down his urine stains. We're trying to keep reasonable although it is admittedly hard, and we'd welcome any reasonable answer to problems that transcend quality of life to health concerns. We'll try to return to the issue about what other cities are finding successful in an upcoming post.

fearlessvk said...

thanks for the response and the plug, scc!

i have a few thoughts about your comment, but as i've got a meeting in 5 minutes, this is all i have time for at the moment:

regarding your desire to look into successful programs in other cities - the national coalition for the homeless has listed some innovative programs in a number of cities and states that deal constructively with these sorts of problems... (you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page, under the heading Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization) I think you might find some of these quite interesting - it's the list beginning with broward county, fl...

i realize that the focus in this report is on homelessness and not panhandling, but i think if you look carefully at the programs they outline, a lot of them could be applied with minor adjustments to street people in general and not just the homeless.

ok, more later :)

Anonymous said...


Please tell me that you are not trying to say that the panhandling is the result of deinstitutionalization of the chronically mentally ill population! By and large, this is not the folks that are panhandling. Yes, there are CMI folks among the panhandlers, just as they exist among any random group of people in society; from the corporate suites to the city streets. Let's not blame them for this situation. Perhaps a closer look at the realities of the current economy would provide us with a better understanding. When the politicians finish giving all of us our $300 tax rebate we can pass it on to the panhandlers and give the economy a boost (he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek).

DowntownDrew said...

I have no problem with homeless people panhandling, so let's take that out of the equation.

I bartended Downtown for five years and now work at an office here and my problem is with PANHANDLERS. These are people you see every day who have a place to live but just want free money through scamming.

As far as police making it a priority, it's not that freakin' hard. Dress a cop up in plain clothes and have he or she walk down Main Street. I promise 2-3 arrests. Do this once a week and word will get around among the "professional" panhandlers.

fearlessvk said...


Please tell me that you are not trying to say that the panhandling is the result of deinstitutionalization of the chronically mentally ill population!

I think you are probably referring to the first comment from aaron here. I haven't said a word about deinstitutionalization. That said, it has been very well-documented that deinstitutionalization in the 1980s did lead to an increase in homelessness, but beyond that, I'm really not sure what the relationship between deinstitutionalization and panhandling is. It strikes me as perfectly plausible that there could be some causal relationship here, but that's just speculation, I don't really know anything about the statistics and I certainly don't know anything about the local stats.

Actually, I would be really curious to hear from scc (or anyone else) what their sources are when they estimate what percentage of homeless people actually panhandle. I can't seem to find any reliable information on the subject and I'm interested in the numbers. I'd love to see a study.

Which I guess leads me into my final point, which I wanted to make yesterday but ran out of time before my meeting:

People here who are critical of panhandlers take great pains to underscore that they have no issue with the homeless, and in fact would very much like to help the homeless. So SCC says: "To set the record straight, this is not a problem with homeless people." But I think we should admit to ourselves that this anti-panhandling movement has always been about more than just panhandling. I see this in SCC's latest comment to me:

That said, I guess we get emotional about this because we can smell the urine in the summer time, we ask the guy to move off the grate in front of our place in the winter time and occasionally clean up his feces and hose down his urine stains. We're trying to keep reasonable although it is admittedly hard, and we'd welcome any reasonable answer to problems that transcend quality of life to health concerns.

Now, to be clear, I totally understand scc's frustration here - it is unpleasant, to say nothing of the genuine health issues, to be confronted with urine and shit on your front doorstep! All the same, peeing and defecating in public are not the same thing as panhandling, and while most homeless people may not panhandle, a great percentage of them DO pee and defecate in public, simply because they often find themselves with nowhere else to do so, especially if it's the middle of the night and they haven't found indoor shelter for the evening.

If we're going to move from complaints about panhandling to complaints about bodily functions in public spaces (which, again, is a legitimate issue, I'm not suggesting otherwise), then we have to admit we're actually upset about something bigger than just panhandling. And that perhaps it's not entirely honest to claim again and again that this crusade has nothing to do with the homeless.

Anonymous said...

Having worked or been present in Downtown since 1969, I have not observed the MPD address the panhandling issue at all. It is simply too much of a hassle for the cops to have to arrest and process the offenders, only to see them back on the street the next day. The problem is becoming pervasive in Midtown and east Memphis, with panhandlers posted at the entrances of most stores I patronize. I can't go to Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Kroger, etc., in Midtown without being accosted, even though some of the stores have security guards. The owners and managers of businesses are just as much to blame as the MPD for their lax attitude toward panhandlers.
Businesses as well as citizens are going to have to be proactive in puting a stop to the problem. If you want a laugh go into the Walgreens at Union and McLean and complain to the manager about the panhandler that accosted you 2 feet from their front door.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Memphis for a couple of vists the summer of 2006, the Shelby County Sheriff was down there doing foot patrols. It looked like they had two with the panhandlers and keep the kids and gangbangers from hanging out at Peabody Place. They were polite, but weren't taking anything off anyone. I actually relaxed and had a good time.

Anonymous said...

I only hope that any panhandling initiative is city-wide, not just limited to the more haute Midtown and Downtown areas. I live in what could best be described as the Summer Avenue corridor, which includes Highland Heights and Berclair. We've already got a career panhandler(or several!) on seemingly every corner and outside every C-store, gas station, drugstore and restaurant. We've got a resident homeless population that doesn't bother anyone. These guys I've witnessed driving to a gas station to panhandle nearby are the issue. I caught one at the Chevron on Stratford and he basically said he made more money on handouts than he did at a real job. Maybe taking the profitability out of panhandling might help, I dunno.

Anyway, I hope that any effort to stop panhandling will be all-encompassing and zero tolerance. Rehab only helps those who want it, and for guys who'd rather scam for a dollar than get a job...well, I don't think any number of social programs or therapy sessions will be effective.

The Boxman said...

Memphians are well versed in political speak and the Center City’s announcements about this program for panhandling are full of phrases that are going to be used in three months to cover the fact that $60,000 plus dollars will be spent with no real impact.
This test run is simply the Center City Commission protecting downtown during tourist season.

Tourism is big business in Memphis so we have to make sure the out of town visitors are not hustled so they will leave their hotels during conferences and spend money at the bars, restaurants and walking along the one sliver of redeveloped downtown. Maybe it would have been worth $60,000 to help get customers to Peabody Place so every store in the place would not be shutting down and some jobs would be created for these downtown panhandlers.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that there is a difference between the homeless and street people. Homeless are people who by some financial tragedy have lost their home. Many Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck and one financial hardship such as an illness can cause them the loss of everything. As a community we should be reaching out to these people and giving them a hand to get back on their feet.

The street people are the hustlers and panhandlers who have figured out that they can make decent money hanging out in front restaurants, shops and businesses all over town asking people for change. It is not just the aggressive ones which yell, spit and cuss. It is the fact that at every cross street in this city someone asks you for change.

A security force hassling panhandlers is just going to push the panhandlers to a place where the security is not present, such as midtown. Then in three months when the tourist money is gone the “test” will end and be shown not to be effective and nothing will be done. The panhandlers will return and office workers will be hassled every morning, lunch time and on the way to after work drinks by the same panhandlers who return to claim their hustling territory. Thanks Center City Commission – I used to know where the bums where so I could just avoid those areas now you are going to make them roving and I will have to be more alert. Plus it is good to know that as a citizen I am less valuable than a tourist. I guess I can stop coming to those downtown court square concerts, and watching the Definitely Downtown tv show as they must really be aimed at tourist and not me.

All this security force is going to do is create more expense for Memphis tax payers. If the police do hand out a citation do we really think the panhandler is going to pay it? Then after they have several citations the police will arrest them and they will sit in jail. The police, courts, lawyers and jail all paid for by taxpayers will be burdened. It would probably be cheap if each of us just gave a dollar to a panhandler a lived with the problem.

Spend the $60,000 on coordinating all the shelters, food kitchens and social programs to get the people that need help and want to get off the street into programs that offer long term assistance. That would be the first step to reduce the panhandlers. Then we would be left with the chronic street people – the panhandlers who have elected professional panhandling as a career, or those that are mentally impaired by illness or dependency. I am sure it is this element which is causing the other problems of theft and petty crimes when they cannot earn enough panhandling.

Now when someone is cited for aggressive panhandling instead of putting them in jail get them into mental health. Give the judge the power to commit them to psychiatric care. I would rather spend my money getting someone off drugs, into a halfway house, and back on the right road then parking them in jail only to release them to continue their habits. The aggressive panhandlers who are not mentally ill will realize they do not want to be committed. Jail is one thing but a mental health facility is another. Fund real programs – create real policies – and maybe citizens would not be creating websites and forums asking for change (maybe not the best choice of words).

Jeff Sanford and the team at the Center City Commission are experts at working to build a strong city. Unfortunately they are taking the heat for stepping up to do something about the problem. Why? Because this solution is a temporary fix to a long term problem. Budget dollars are precious, that is what my boss always tells me, and I am not allowed to spend any unless I can prove they are going to have an impact.

Three months of private security is white wash to convince tourist our town is not swarming with smell aggressive vagrants. Where is our mayor during all of this? If he would stop handing out raises (one of which would fund this program by the Center City Commission) he might notice that the first thing that visitor to our downtown see coming across the bridge is panhandlers drying their clothes and living behind the Cook Convention Center.

Read more stories of the hustlers, panhandlers and street people of memphis at

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