The city of Lexington has launched a campaign to discourage people from giving to panhandlers and encourage donations to the nonprofits that serve them.
Launched this summer, the “Change for the Better” campaign stresses that too often money given to panhandlers may support addiction and undermines efforts to get people off the streets. More than 10,000 “Change for the Better” cards have been distributed, city officials said this week.
The card also tells someone panhandling that they can call one number — 211 — to get information about shelter or other services. It also lists all of the city’s overnight shelters, day shelters and places that serve free food.
A city ordinance that bans begging on public streets and at intersections is being challenged in the courts. On Friday, the state Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case. The city has not suspended enforcement of its panhandling ordinance while that case is pending, said Brenna Angel, a spokeswoman for Lexington Police. It could be several months before the state Supreme Court decides if the city’s panhandling ban will be struck down.
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Charlie Lanter, the director of Lexington’s Office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention, said the effort is aimed at getting more people off the streets and into programs that work.
“Our goal is for homelessness in Lexington to be rare, brief and non-recurring,” Lanter said. “To that end, we try to educate citizens about effective ways of helping people avoid and escape homelessness which includes encouraging them to provide information about shelter, food, employment and housing opportunities when someone on the street asks for help.”
But some advocates for the homeless said tying begging to homelessness is wrong and further stigmatizes homeless people. Many people holding signs and asking for help aren’t homeless, said Ginny Ramsey, an advocate for homeless who runs shelters and other services for Lexington’s homeless.
“Our people are almost insulted that some of these people are saying they’re homeless and they’re not,” Ramsey said.
During last winter’s storms, more than 70 percent of the people that Ramsey and others were called to check on because citizens saw them panhandling or outside in cold temperatures were not homeless, she said.
“We need to quit talking about it just as a homeless issue. It’s a poverty issue,” Ramsey said.
When people say they are homeless and are not, it creates more hostility toward homeless people, Ramsey said.
Lanter said the intent of the new policy was to encourage more compassion for the homeless and direct people toward programs that work. Lanter said the campaign was started because so many concerned citizens have called his office asking what is the best way to help someone who approaches them for money.
“We encourage concerned citizens to support and work alongside the people and organizations that have the resources and expertise to actually help people get off the streets and into a home of their own,” Lanter said. “There is no way for people to know if someone is homeless or not. The best we can do is provide that person with information on the resources that can help them if they are homeless. The person may not be homeless but they may be precariously housed and need help too.”