The recent surge in panhandling in Providence is directly caused by a rise in poverty, a panel of experts said Wednesday, but is also linked to the publicized curbs on the city’s ordnance against it.
Appearing before almost 40 people at a public forum at Summit Commons, 99 Hillside Ave., sponsored by SNA, the speakers were: Jeffrey Dana, Providence city solicitor; Linda Katz, policy director of the Economic Progress Institute; Rabbi Alan Flam, executive director of the Helen Hudson Foundation for Homeless America; and Diana Burdett, executive director of PICA, a charitable nonprofit that runs the state’s largest food pantry. They were joined by Cliff Wood of the Downtown Parks Conservancy. The session was organized and moderated by Gayle Gifford, president of Cause & Effect Inc., an advisor to nonprofits, and assisted by R.I. Rep. Aaron Regunberg.
Flam summed up the cause of panhandling, which is the act of seeking handouts from passersby, by saying it is a problem of poverty. “People don’t have enough money to live,” he said, adding that it’s “not a question of homelessness, it’s poverty.”
Katz supported that assessment, pointing out that 27.9 percent of the people in Providence live at or below the poverty level, which for a family of one parent and two children is $20,000. She cited the shift away from manufacturing jobs at which a high-school graduate could still make a living, but now the pay from available jobs is “not enough to support a family,” even with available benefits.
Getting those benefits, Burdett said, is often difficult, with children and the elderly being the most affected. “Many people wouldn’t be able to eat if they couldn’t access food pantries,” she asserted, adding that many also can’t access the health-care system so they self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. “It’s a full-time job being homeless,” she said, and that makes them vulnerable.
In answer to a question about who seems to be organizing the panhandlers, Wood echoed Burdett’s theme by saying the victims of poverty are targets of predators who steal what little help is given. He had said earlier that the city’s decision to not enforce the law against panhandling “opened the floodgates for petty criminal activity” downtown, prompting an increase in police presence. He said there was absolutely no criminalization of panhandling, but there is no city tolerance for petty crime, He said the downtown activity “has nothing to do with the homeless situation.”
Dana added that the city is working to get more housing and shelters available during the day and is cooperating with other agencies to develop jobs for the homeless. He stated that many anti-panhandling laws have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as infringements on the First Amendment and that “enforcing an anti-panhandling law is clearly not legal.” But, he added, “just because panhandling is OK, that doesn’t mean crime is OK.” He said “we’re not going to arrest our way to a solution of poverty.”
Flam gave this guidance to residents who “clearly want to help people in distress.” Don’t give money to the panhandler, he said. “It’s not about giving to the individual on the corner – give to the organizations that are working on the problem.”
Panel members and the two moderators wrapped up by urging residents to, a Flam put it, “turn attention and outrage toward public officials who don’t address” the underlying causes. “Citizens have not demanded solutions, have not participated in the public square,” he said.