Begging for Trouble

October 16, 1992

About a year ago, a Downtown Partnership of Baltimore report examined the issue of public safety in the center of town. The report cited panhandlers, or "people causing anxiety," as a source of uneasiness for downtown workers and visitors.

Anyone who regularly goes into the city knows it's hard to walk a few blocks without encountering a panhandler. Most people handle this contretemps by sidestepping the beggar or by forking over cash, uncertain if it will be used to buy food or booze.

The experience can be just as awkward for panhandlers. It's especially sad when mothers with kids in tow ask for hand-outs on city sidewalks.

As a result of the Downtown Partnership report, a task force of city officials, business people and homeless advocates is studying the possibility of using vouchers that can be bought and given to panhandlers in lieu of cash. The vouchers would be exchanged for food and other essential items, most likely at local retailers and food banks.

The voucher system has been tried in Berkeley, Calif., and touted by a Washington, D.C., task force on homelessness. Berkeley officials say the 25-cent vouchers have halved "aggressive panhandling," presumably because the program has discouraged beggars who want cash only.

However, Baltimore has seven times the population of Berkeley, which suggests a voucher program here would prove more unwieldy. Also, it's hard to envision people buying enough vouchers to make the program worth the effort, and harder still to concede that another layer of bureaucracy should be created specifically for panhandling.

Advocates of the poor say the concept's biggest pitfall might be the black-market re-sale of vouchers. They admit many panhandlers would sell their vouchers, then use the cash to buy the non-essentials the program aims to keep from beggars.

Voucher proponents view it as a convenience for those who are solicited. But is there any difference between giving cash or a coupon, since either action would require stopping for a beggar? So much for eluding these "people causing anxiety."

Downtown Partnership officials are quick to point out that vouchers would not be a cure-all but rather would offer a way to help those who are bothered by panhandling when they come to the city. It's doubtful, though, that the idea would do little else but complicate the problem it aims to alleviate. All this energy would be better spent on attacking the root social problems that lead to panhandling and homelessness in the first place.

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