Advocates for poor hail vouchers for panhandlers Vouchers eyed to give safe image to downtown.

December 11, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

Baltimore business leaders' proposals for improving public safety downtown that include a voucher system for panhandlers and jobs for the homeless were applauded yesterday by some advocates for the poor.

Several advocates said they were pleased by the business community's attempts to balance the needs of the poor and homeless with their attempts to improve downtown's image.

At the same time, some advocates expressed caution and said they would like to see how the business community implements its recommendations before passing final judgment.

Among the recommendations, which are included in a report titled "Prescription for Public Safety," is creation of a voucher program that would 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.

Also, the report recommends a system of reporting aggressive panhandling to police.

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 annually be placed in a training program to become downtown maintenance workers, performing such tasks as sweeping sidewalks and curb lines, weeding and cleaning tree wells, and shoveling and salting snowy sidewalks.

The report also calls for adding business leaders to the Homeless Relief Advisory Board in order to plan and develop services for the homeless downtown.

In addition, the report focuses on other crime-related issues, including secure parking facilities, improved lighting, better police patrols and expanded community-watch programs.

The report was produced by a 50-member task force set up by the Downtown Partnership, a quasi-public downtown management group. It was released yesterday with an endorsement from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

For homeless advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the issues of panhandling and the homeless held the greatest interest. Most expressed positive reactions to the report, although words of caution also were added.

"It's good to see some creative thinking going on here," said Susan Goering, legal director for the state's ACLU. "Certainly, the voucher program sounds good."

But Goering said any attempts to remove panhandlers or the homeless from the streets could be a violation of First Amendment rights. She said the report has a good definition for an aggressive panhandler, but the public's response to panhandling is not always compassionate.

"People who just don't happen to like people asking them for money might abuse" a system of reporting aggressive panhandlers, she said. "People don't understand that short of physically accosting someone, panhandling is a protected freedom."

Goering added that efforts to place homeless people in job training programs should not be mandatory. "It's people's right to sit in the sun and not be forced to do anything," she said.

Still, Goering said, it appears the task force made an attempt to "tread fairly carefully" with certain issues.

Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless, labeled the report's recommendations "very reasonable," but she cautioned officials to be aware that "panhandlers are not necessarily homeless."

While there are no figures on the number of panhandlers who are homeless, Pinette said she suspects the number is relatively small. Estimates are that at least 22 percent of homeless people in Baltimore are employed, she said.

Pinette also expressed concern that a voucher plan would ease some people's fears but not help panhandlers.

"I don't want to become overly comfortable with panhandling and not address the problem," she said. "If we don't see the problem, we don't do anything to help the problem."

Constance Caplan, a Baltimore real estate executive who chaired the task force, defended the report as a balanced attempt to address the concerns of business leaders while also showing compassion to the needy.

Caplan said the suggestion that business leaders become members of the Homeless Relief Advisory Board is an attempt to make the business community more aware of problems facing the homeless.

"We've got a housing problem there, an economic problem, a health problem," she said. "If we get more people on the board, we'll have a better understanding."

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