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Posted on: March 21, 2017

Proposed program could help get panhandlers off the streets and into jobs

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In Albuquerque, they were searching for a “better way.” In Portland, they created an “Opportunity Crew”. And in Springfield, leaders are hoping to provide “Wheels to Work.”


City officials are working on an 8-week pilot program called “Wheels to Work” to offer day jobs and long-term employment opportunities to panhandlers. The program, which was proposed to City Council Tuesday, would have nonprofit partners, such as Crosslines, driving vans around to busy intersections and offering panhandlers a chance to earn up to $11 dollars an hour doing a variety of light labor day jobs. They would be paid at the end of each day.


The City has partnered with People Ready to supply the jobs. Their core expertise is recruiting, screening, and hiring the right workers for on-demand, seasonal support and temporary staffing.


“The first and foremost goal is to treat panhandlers with respect and compassion,” said City Manager Greg Burris. “We want to make sure people have opportunities and they aren’t relegated to panhandling as their only way to make ends meet. We would like to reduce the number of panhandlers standing at intersections, but also to connect people with services and that could put them on the path to healthier and more productive, stable lives.”


The City’s Director of Workforce Development, Mary Ann Rojas, will coordinate the services provided to panhandlers (guests), who will receive a free ride to the Missouri Job Center where they will receive more than a day job. Rojas says they will receive assistance to hopefully get them in a pipeline for more stable and higher-paying work. Missouri Job Center has about 3000 jobs available on any one given day. But, Rojas also understands that there are some serious barriers that people often face in trying to secure employment. And she wants to help tear down those barriers with the help of many partner organizations.


“A lot of times, under-resourced people need assistance with job readiness -  like access to basic services, obtaining a driver’s license or other documents, or even referrals for other services to address mental or physical health issues or housing,” Rojas said. “We want to help with that.”


Once guests arrive at the Job Center. they will be greeted by a workforce specialist who will provide a quick assessment to determine whether the guest’s immediate need is day work or if they are interested in long-term employment.


“Having reliable transportation is a big barrier,” said Burris. “This program hopes to overcome that barrier for those interested in working and travel vouchers will be provided to help address that need.”


If the guest’s immediate need is day work, he or she is instructed as to the requirements and assessment through People Ready. If there is an immediate need for work clothing, resume or other things, they will be provided for the guest before they are transported to People Ready.


Branch manager Rand Henslee is optimistic about the program. “I believe there’s a real opportunity here and I’m always looking for good workers. I have lots of job available,” he said. A recent day job involved moving boxes, breaking down shelving and dismantling items at MC Sports to assist with their liquidation. He staffed a job recently at Branson Landing and one in Joplin. People Ready has jobs located all across southwest Missouri. Henslee often pairs workers together to help those in need connect with those with reliable transportation. 


Guests that are interested in long-term employment and more extensive services will be assigned to a customized workshop which includes a comprehensive assessment to determine needs, appropriate referral, job readiness and the assignment of a case manager.


Rojas and other partners, such as Mark Struckhoff, the executive director for Council of Churches of the Ozarks, think this program may help local nonprofits and City case managers to engage with a new group of people not currently connected to resources.


Panhandlers don’t always have contact with social service workers, Struckhoff said.


“We want to be able to help these folks to earn more money more safely, and get them connected with services.”


This approach has worked well in Albuquerque, according to Mayor Richard Berry, who launched “There’s a Better Way” in 2015.

According to data on the city’s website, in the first few months of the Albuquerque program, 1,689 day jobs have been given, 20 people have received housing through the program and 151 people have received mental health or substance abuse services.

Mayor Berry said prospective workers are receptive when approached with dignity and respect and become more motivated when someone believes in their ability to accomplish something. “It’s amazing what people can do when you give them a chance,” he said.


Panhandling has been a growing concern in U.S. cities such as Springfield, where business owners worry the practice puts a damper on tourism and some residents and visitors complain about panhandlers asking for money on sidewalks and at stoplights.


Offering jobs is the latest creative response to address the issue. Homeless advocates praise the efforts as a constructive, alternative approach rather than criminalizing homelessness.


The City plans to launch a comprehensive public education campaign about the program, which will include signage at 12 intersections in which panhandlers frequent. The signs will direct individuals to call United Way at 211 to receive assistance or learn more about Wheels to Work. Additional signs will suggest that individuals wishing to help people, donate funds to Wheels to Work as an alternative to giving money directly to panhandlers.


The City’s Recent History Addressing Panhandling:

• City Council passed a panhandling bill in 2014 that built on earlier panhandling restrictions in City Code. The bill was drafted at the request of the Park Central Square Task Force, a group that included downtown business owners as well as other stakeholders.

• The City previously had outlawed "aggressive panhandling" — such as repeatedly asking a person for money despite being rebuffed, or making physical contact while soliciting — anywhere in the city. The new ordinance prohibited verbal requests for money within five feet of a street or sidewalk or within 20 feet of a doorway or sidewalk cafe.

• Council members considered similar restrictions on "passive panhandling," such as silent appeals for assistance using a sign, but held off due to concerns about legality. Under the adopted law, quietly seeking donations was allowed as long as panhandlers stayed away from street medians, intersections and shoulders and did not block an entrance or obstruct pedestrian traffic.

• A federal lawsuit filed Dec. 3, 2015 effectively suspended any restrictions on panhandling in Springfield. On Dec. 16, a judge approved a preliminary injunction that prohibited the city from enforcing the law. The moratorium extended to the prosecution of panhandling tickets already in the system.

• In the lawsuit, 61-year-old Bobby Honicutt alleged that the law had not been applied correctly. Honicutt, who was assisted by the ACLU of Missouri, said he tried to abide by the law and panhandle passively from a city sidewalk, but was threatened with a ticket by a Springfield police officer.

• A 2015 Supreme Court decision (Reed vs. Gilbert – a case about whether a municipal sign ordinance violated free speech) took the view that most panhandling laws were targeting the message, rather than conduct, and that makes it a violation of free speech.

• After Reed, laws that single out a topic of speech for regulation are unconstitutional.

• In response to Reed, courts around the country struck down panhandling laws, because they single out one topic of speech to regulate: panhandling.

• City Council repealed an ordinance addressing aggressive panhandling in February 2016 to comply with the court’s decision on the Reed case and avoid additional lawsuits.

• Federal, state or local legislation authorizing panhandling laws would likely be struck down by the courts for violating Reed.

• At this point, there are two viable possibilities to stop courts from striking down panhandling laws: 1) a United State Supreme Court decision overruling Reed or ruling that Reed is being interpreted incorrectly in panhandling cases; or 2) a federal constitutional amendment.

 

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For more information, please call Cora Scott at 417-380-3352 or cscott@springfieldmo.gov. 

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