Harper Woods seeks solutions to panhandling

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published May 3, 2017

 Harper Woods officials are trying to address panhandling in a way that is both lawful and respectful of the many issues surrounding the practice.

Harper Woods officials are trying to address panhandling in a way that is both lawful and respectful of the many issues surrounding the practice.

Photo by Deb Jacques

HARPER WOODS — A recent hot topic of discussion in the Harper Woods community, both in and out of City Council meetings, has been how to best address the issue of panhandling.

Many residents have long complained that the number of panhandlers begging for money reflects poorly on a community trying to rebuild and improve itself, while others want to ensure that poverty in the area is handled in a respectful and sympathetic manner regarding those living on the streets. 

“This city is trying to improve its image, and that’s hard to do when the first thing people see when they drive into town is a bunch of guys begging for money,” said Philip Garruck, a Harper Woods resident. “I know there is a group of four guys who have a house and make a combined $80,000, who don’t need charity, but they accost people anyway.”

Those who work with the homeless population say giving money to people on the street is, at best, an inefficient way to aid them and possibly even making their lives worse.

“Please do not give them any money or support. As a person who works with the homeless population, it is bad for the panhandlers and bad for communities,” said Chad Audi, president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, in a phone interview. “The vast majority you see on the corners are not impoverished and are not homeless. Some even work together in shifts like a sort of illicit business. Giving them money on one consistent location only encourages them to stay there and keep working that area.”

Passing local laws or ordinances on the matter is complicated.

“It’s a complicated issue because of the Michigan Supreme Court decision that said panhandling is exercising free speech,” said Harper Woods City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk. “It means that loitering and begging ordinances cannot be used to get people off corners. The Michigan attorney general said that any streetside solicitation is a traffic danger, so there may be more we can do in the future. For instance, we may be able to limit the times it is allowed or require safety equipment.”

Skotarczyk said this can be a sensitive issue for people, and the Harper Woods government is doing what it can to address both the need to ensure the prosperity of the community and to respect the rights and needs of those who are homeless.

“For years panhandlers have worked the intersections around Moross, and recently they have moved over to the Vernier entrance to I-94,” said Skotarczyk. “Police have ticketed people there if they interfered with traffic, but they cannot ticket them for just standing there with a sign or speaking to people. This isn’t just happening in Harper Woods. It’s a common sight in cities, particularly those with highly trafficked entrances to freeways. We want to respect people’s constitutional rights but ensure all of our residents feel they are being protected.”

Audi said the best way to combat panhandling is to try to find constructive ways to assist the local homeless population. This means supporting shelters and nonprofits that aim to provide sustainable assistance to those on the streets, instead of giving out a few dollars to those on street corners.

“If people want to really help, my advice would be to support local organizations who are doing a good job. There are a lot of ways to check online to see which organizations are proactive and effective,” said Audi. “I can only speak for the Detroit Rescue Mission, but I can promise we are doing a lot of good work, and there are a lot of other people who are doing good work around southeast Michigan. Giving people money on the streets never works; they could be a con man or they could be a drug addict. People giving them money have their hearts in the right place, but they can help in far more helpful and meaningful ways.”

The issue is in constant flux as a number of communities and their representatives have lobbied Lansing to alter the laws to discourage the practice. Local municipalities, such as Harper Woods, are waiting to see how the issue develops.

“The whole gamut of our panhandling ordinances is under review right now,” said Harper Woods City Attorney Russell LaBarge.

Skotarczyk and Audi agreed that the issue has to be dealt with in a way where those who are in need are not being treated like a problem. How to do so effectively, however, is still a question for many people.

“By supporting people on the streets, you’re not doing them a favor. You are only encouraging them to stay on the streets,” said Audi. “By supporting a shelter or other organization, you are providing the homeless with a place they can go to get off the streets and potentially change their lives.”