As a round of cars passed Douglas Seibold and his crinkled cardboard sign that read “anything is nice?” at Division and Third, he finished the last of his late-morning beer and tossed the empty Rolling Rock tall can in the trash.
Seibold has been panhandling on downtown Spokane streets for several months. At nights, he finds a bed at Spokane’s House of Charity, a shelter that lets people in sober or not. During the day he’s out on the street asking for money.
He makes $10 to $20 per day panhandling, and, he said, most of that money goes toward beer, cigarettes and pot.
A new “Give Real Change” campaign launched Friday by the Downtown Spokane Partnership and city of Spokane asks people to stop giving money to panhandlers like Siebold. The city is hoping that if people don’t give money to panhandlers, fewer will ask for it.
“In reality, when we give money to panhandlers we are actually doing a disservice,” says Rob McCann, executive director at Catholic Charities. “Each dollar handed out a car window marches the recipient closer to a life of chaos, addiction, suffering and even death.”
The majority of panhandlers in Spokane are not using the money for food, said Dean Whisler, social services manager for Union Gospel Mission in Spokane. Many of them are not homeless, and they refuse jobs in favor of a living made collecting money on the streets, he said.
McCann said panhandlers can make up to $100 a day. Siebold thinks this is an unrealistic number, but said there are people who make panhandling a living, even though they have a home.
Tavis White, who is staying at the Union Gospel Mission, said he used to panhandle as a teenager in Tacoma. Over a weekend, he would often make more than $400.
Another person staying at Union Gospel Mission, Joseph Comstock, panhandled at the age of 12, but said he stopped when he was old enough to get a job. He said panhandlers downtown either do not want to get sober, a Union Gospel Mission requirement, or they simply would rather ask for money than work for it.
“As long as there’s somebody willing to hand out cash, there’s going to be panhandlers,” Comstock said.
Comstock said he knows panhandlers who live in two-story homes. Many of them have learned tricks to make more money, like having a dog with them or saying they are a veteran when they are not.
One Spokane panhandler holds a sign that reads, “bet you can’t hit me with a quarter,” and some shamelessly announce they need money for beer.
But Comstock said some panhandlers would benefit from some food. It’s just hard to determine who has a genuine need.
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, emphasized that the organization does not want to restrict residents from showing compassion, but to instead give that money to local charities.
The $25,000 media campaign, funded by the city of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership, will advertise on Facebook, provide informational kits to downtown employers and post on fliers around the city.
However, Kevin Parks, operations coordinator at the House of Charity, expressed doubts that the campaign would help reduce Spokane panhandling.
“I don’t think it would help,” Parks said. “A certain percentage will still give money to panhandlers.”
In 2012, the Spokane City Council made it illegal for panhandlers to reach into the street in central Spokane. But social workers say the law does not appear to have reduced the number of people asking for money.
Siebold said he has been booked and released from jail multiple times, and the next day he’s usually back out on the street with a cardboard sign. Finding a job is not an option at his age of 51, he said, and he drinks alcohol because it helps him feel better. His attitude toward the “Give Real Change” campaign is flippant.
“If they don’t want to give us anything, then don’t give us anything,” he said.
Mayor David Condon’s Urban Environment Task Force helped plan the campaign. He said part of the goal of the program is to connect homeless people to local nonprofits.
“For Spokane to thrive, we need to ensure an environment where people want to live, work and play. Part of that is stopping panhandling and connecting people who need help with the resources that can make a long-term difference,” Condon said.
White and Comstock said panhandlers are giving the public the wrong impression of the homeless. They said the homeless living in shelters often are looking for work or are working, but are temporarily displaced.
Whisler is unsure whether the campaign will help panhandlers get off the streets. While there are some panhandlers with genuine need, he said it’s better for people to provide them with food or give the money to local charities or services. For those panhandling to feed an addiction, the decision is up to them.
“When they’re ready to stop, when they say enough is enough, we will welcome them with open arms,” Whisler said.
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