Those who agonize over giving when approached by Baltimore's panhandlers have a new choice -- give a coupon instead of cash.
The Helping Up Mission, a shelter and ministry at 1029 E. Baltimore St., has distributed hundreds of vouchers to people who may be panhandled.
The vouchers entitle bearers to a night's stay and two meals at the 109-year-old mission just east of downtown.
First distributed to conventioneers earlier this month, the vouchers are now available in coupon books from the mission. By yesterday, not one voucher had been redeemed.
That doesn't surprise Michael Fishback, the mission's executive director. He estimates only a tiny minority of the city's panhandlers are begging for money for food or shelter. But his plan, he says, frees people from making "value judgments" about a panhandler's intentions.
"Let's face it, panhandling is a social problem," he said. "It's given businesses a black eye because they've got an attitude. And it's given the homeless a black eye because people are suspicious of them."
In other forms, voucher programs have had limited success. Coupons for food and drink -- a system pioneered in Berkeley, Calif., and briefly considered here -- can be sold, creating a black market. And a study by Baltimore's Downtown Partnership, a consortium of area merchants and property owners, indicated that such programs seem to increase panhandling.
The Helping Up voucher, however, has virtually no black market potential. After all, the first five nights at the mission are free, and subsequent visits cost only $2 a night. Furthermore, the vouchers are stamped "free."
Yet, in a city where an estimated 2,500 people are homeless on any given night, the mission's 130 beds are seldom full. And Mr. Fishback doesn't expect the voucher program to change that.
For one thing, he said, many of those who panhandle are not homeless, or else prefer the streets to shelters. They panhandle for money for motel rooms, food, clothes and, in some cases, the substances they abuse.
"Truthfully, I think when they see [the voucher], they're going to be upset because they're looking for money," Mr. Fishback said.
"The panhandler is a master at making you feel guilty," he added. "But if you're interested and you really want to help, here's a way to get him an evening meal, a bed and breakfast."
But those who use the vouchers also must attend an hourlong church service, mandatory for those who stay at the mission. And they may be subjected to Breathalyzer or urine tests.
A rehabilitation program, Helping Up bans drug and alcohol use, Mr. Fishback said, testing those the staff suspects of backsliding.
Such policies have led to mixed reports from those on the streets who have tried the mission. And the new voucher system nTC apparently will do little to endear Helping Up to some potential clients.
"I'd give it back because I think the missions are demeaning," said William Miles, who works a strip of Commerce Street south of the Block, offering to clean cars and feed parking meters in exchange for tips.
His colleague, Keno, agreed: "I'd rather have the money. For example, I need shoes right now. The coupon's only good for me to lay my head down for one night."
But Norma Pinette of Action for the Homeless said the voucher gives people a much-needed alternative.
"It's a distressing situation to be confronted with someone in need," she said. "The more options people have, the better."