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Police, community try to help panhandlers

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Stacy Vogel
December 6, 2009
— Archie Williams had one word to describe what it's like to ask strangers for money:

"Humiliating."


But at the time, he felt he had no choice. He was homeless and jobless in Chicago, estranged from his family with nowhere to go. He felt like no one cared about him.


"I had to figure out a way to live, and I figured instead of robbing people, I'd ask them," he said.


Williams, 40, has been in Janesville about a year, and he no longer panhandles, he said. Last week, he was staying at GIFTS men's shelter, a homeless shelter that rotates among Janesville churches.


But Janesville police see one or two cases a week of people asking for money, either verbally or by holding up signs, Sgt. Chad Pearson said.


"In most cases, we just move them along," Pearson said.


It's impossible to know how many panhandlers are in the Janesville area at any given time, Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said. There's no local ordinance against panhandling or loitering.


Police typically get involved if panhandlers are obstructing vehicle or pedestrian traffic, he said.


An obscure state "vagrancy" statute prohibits begging, but the department doesn't enforce the statute, especially during the recession when so many people can't find jobs, Moore said.


But the department does try to make sure panhandlers aren't having a physical or mental health crisis, Pearson said. Officers try to find them a place to stay and offer food, motel and transportation vouchers.


"In some cases, we've encountered people that want to be left alone," he said. "They choose their lifestyle."


Almost all of the panhandlers the department has dealt with are men, and more often than not, they're from Rock County, Pearson said. Many have mental health or substance abuse problems.


Pearson hasn't noticed an increase in panhandling during the recession, he said. One reason might be the GIFTS shelter, which opened Christmas Eve 2007.


"The biggest help that we've gained is the development by our Christian community to open up the men's shelter, which has been just unbelievably helpful to us," Pearson said.


The shelter has helped Williams improve his outlook, even though his financial situation remains grim, he said. In fact, the shelter was the main reason the Watertown native came to Janesville last year, he said.


Still, he worries about his future.


"Ain't no jobs out here," he said. "What are we supposed to do?"


How to handle requests for handouts

Maybe someone approaches you downtown asking for money to buy a sandwich.


Or you see someone on Milton Avenue with a sign that says "Will work for food."


What do you do? Here's some advice from local experts:


-- Sgt. Chad Pearson, Janesville Police Department


Pearson would never tell someone not to give to people in need, but you have to keep safety in mind, he said.


"A person's charity is a decision that they have to make, warranting that they're comfortable in doing that," he said.


The department deals with a few people who panhandle regularly and spend the money on alcohol, he said. You could offer food instead, he suggested.


Archie Williams, a former panhandler, said he appreciated it when people brought him food because that's what he wanted the money for anyway. But he saw some people who only wanted an easy buck.


"They do it because they know they can get the money even though they don't need it," he said.


Pearson advised against offering shelter or transportation to panhandlers for the same reasons you shouldn't offer a ride or shelter to any stranger.


If you're concerned about the welfare of a homeless person or panhandler, call the police, he said.


-- Marc Perry, Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties


Perry doesn't advise giving panhandlers cash because you could be opening yourself up to a robbery, he said.


"You don't want to pull out your wallet or pull out a wad of money on the street," he said.


Instead, direct people in need to social service organizations such as Community Action, Salvation Army or ECHO, he said.


He also advocated offering food or clothing if you want to help a person right away.


-- Karen Lisser, ECHO


ECHO counsels its clients to avoid panhandling and advises against giving to panhandlers, Lisser said.


"We don't recommend that people give people money because it really does set you up for being taken advantage of," she said.


If you want to help people in need, donate to organizations such as ECHO, Salvation Army and Community Action, she said. Then if someone asks you for money, tell the person about the organization.


Social service organizations have systems in place to assess all of their clients' needs, she said. They work to help their clients in the short and long term.


If you are approached by a panhandler on a night or weekend, direct that person to police, she said. Officers have vouchers that can be used for food, gas or shelter.



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