Vouchers for panhandlers urged in new safety report Business, civic leaders seek to upgrade downtown image.

December 10, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

A voucher program for panhandlers and the homeless is among recommendations for improving safety in downtown Baltimore, presented in a report today.

The document surveys the major safety concerns of business and civic leaders looking to improve the image of the city's central business district. It also focuses on such issues as secure parking facilities, improved lighting, better police patrols and expanded community watch programs.

The 18-page report, which was presented today to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, also recommends a system for reporting aggressive panhandlers to police.

The voucher program would be meant to discourage panhandling for drugs or alcohol. The public would be encouraged to buy the vouchers and pass them out to approaching panhandlers, who could redeem them for food, laundry service, mass transit or hot showers.

The problem of panhandlers is raised in the report in a chapter titled "Report on People Causing Anxiety."

"We have anecdotal evidence that there is a great deal of interest among those downtown in helping the truly needy," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, which coordinated the report.

"But those helping don't want to be ripped off," she said. "They don't want to be giving their money to someone who will be buying alcohol."

Aggressive panhandlers are described as "beggars who do not ask passively for money, but grab or follow or repeatedly harass a victim," the report says. "Panhandling is not necessarily a crime, but it substantially adds to the perception that downtown is an unpleasant and unsafe place to visit."

To assist the hard-core homeless, the report suggests that between six and 12 homeless individuals be placed in a training program to become downtown maintenance workers, sweeping sidewalks and curb lines, weeding and cleaning tree wells, and shoveling and salting sidewalks during snow.

The report also calls for the expansion of the Homeless Relief Advisory Board to plan and develop services for the homeless downtown.

The report states that, on any given day, between 2,000 and 2,400 people are without shelter in Baltimore. Many congregate downtown, where the problem is compounded by a lack of food, health services, detoxification facilities and emergency services.

The report is the work of a task force of 50 downtown business persons, property owners, institutional leaders, media executives, resident, criminal justice professionals and members of the Schmoke cabinet.

Task force members were surveyed about their concerns, as were 1,400 downtown business leaders, employees and residents. In the larger survey, 28 percent of the survey's 400 respondents said they "always" felt at risk of being victims of crime when downtown, while 44 percent were "sometimes" concerned about becoming crime victims.

Among task force members, 32 percent rated crime their most important concern. The second highest concern raised were environmental conditions such as dark or unlighted off-street parking and boarded-up or deteriorating buildings.

Among the recommendations is that Baltimore explore the possibility of a Special Benefits District, whereby downtown businesses would accept an added property tax to fund extra maintenance, sanitation, security and marketing and promotion services for downtown.

Some of the reports other recommendations include the following:

* Establish and enforce standards for lighting, maintenance and signage of parking facilities.

* Create a task force to look into improving the appearance and safety of the Howard Street corridor.

* Train bus, taxi drivers and others who drive vehicles with radios to recognize and report suspicious activity.

* Have security personnel patrol outside office buildings.

Task force members are currently working out ways to implement the recommendations. Some programs, such as the pilot program to train up to 12 homeless persons annually to be part of the downtown maintenance crew, are already under way, officials said.

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