"But 80 percent of panhandlers are not homeless,” said Brett Hamm, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. "This is just what they do.”
Courts have ruled outlawing panhandling altogether is a violation of free speech. But downtowns across the country are finding ways to combat what they insist is a deterrent to people deciding to live, work and play in urban centers.
In Memphis, a downtown booster photographs "professional” panhandlers and posts the photos on a blog. The Nashville Downtown Partnership has a campaign of "Please Help, Don't Give” that includes training for employees of restaurants, hotels, shops, office buildings and attractions. The organization also posts fliers and signs throughout downtown with the "Please Help, Don't Give” theme.
The business improvement district in downtown Denver used the same campaign and even commissioned a survey that reported panhandlers were raking in $4.5 million a year. The survey showed 42 percent of adults working or visiting downtown had given to panhandlers. Downtown Denver responded by distributing 150,000 brochures campaigning against giving to panhandlers.
Some of the most aggressive laws against panhandling can be found in Minneapolis, where restrictions include soliciting within 50 feet of parks, sports and convention facilities, and within 10 feet of crosswalks, convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores.
Back in Bricktown, Jim Cowan is welcoming increased enforcement. The director of the Bricktown Association said merchants and property owners need to work with police to ensure visitors feel safe.
"Our district is so much more pedestrian than other areas, so people need to feel comfortable walking around,” Cowan said. "But it's got to start with the merchants — we have to understand what the laws are, and then call police to enforce them — and sign the complaints.”