Most people scarcely notice the orange boxes scattered around the downtown area that say “Don’t give in to panhandlers. Give here.” But somebody noticed the one outside the River Market, and took exception.
“I am truly homeless and this box doesn’t help me at all,” the person wrote on the box. He or she marked through the “Don’t give in to panhandlers” and wrote “don’t” above the “give here” message. The revised version likely will be as little noted as the original.
The boxes are a co-operative venture of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, a business-supported nonprofit group, and the city of Little Rock. They’re intended to reduce panhandling. Money collected in the boxes is distributed by the Partnership to various groups that feed the hungry. People who feel guilty about not giving money to those apparently in need can ease the pain a bit by putting money in the boxes. That’s the idea, anyway.
The boxes went up in 2009. There are now 25 of them. They haven’t been highly patronized. Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said the one and only dispersal of funds was made in 2010. The charities Friendly Chapel, Our House, River City Ministry, the Salvation Army, and Union Rescue Mission/Dorcas House received $600 each. There is now $459 in the fund, Priest said, and the future of the boxes is unclear. The Partnership plans to discuss the matter with city officials.
Panhandling downtown “sort of comes and goes in waves,” Priest said. “Sometimes there’s a whole lot, then it dies down. I don’t know why, but it does.” Some people are offended by the beggars; some, especially women, feel threatened. Some ignore the panhandlers as thoroughly as they ignore the orange boxes.
“Most people don’t know what the boxes are there for,” Priest said. The Partnership had a little money for promotion when the first boxes went up in 2009, but not since, she said. “Do we spend some of the money we collect to promote the program, or do we give it all to the agencies? We’ve always chosen not to spend the money on promotion.”
As to whether the boxes have reduced the amount of panhandling, nobody can say. William Tollett, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission, said he knew of similar programs in other cities, but hadn’t researched the effectiveness of any of them. He agrees that panhandling should be discouraged. When making public appearances, he hands out cards saying what to do and what not to do for the homeless. Giving them money is a definite “not.” Most won’t use it to buy a healthy meal, he said.
Robert Johnston, volunteer coordinator for Feed the Hungry, a charitable group that provides free breakfast five days a week, doesn’t give money to panhandlers either.
“I carry food in my car,” he said. “Vienna sausages are the best. If I’m approached near my car, I give them food. If we’re near a place that sells food, a grocery store or a McDonald’s, I may buy them something.” Or he may tell them about the various free-food places around town, like the Stewpot, a soup kitchen at First Presbyterian Church. “About half the people who approach you are indeed hungry,” Johnston said. “The rest want money for alcohol, or cigarettes, or, very rarely, drugs.” Sometimes, he just says “No, thank you.”
“I’ve never felt threatened by panhandlers,” Johnson said, “but then I’m six-four and 250. A small woman might feel different.”
(Johnston is a former football player at Rice University, as well as a former state legislator and former chairman of the state Public Service Commission.)