What do panhandlers want? Cash, food, toiletries, a ride out of town?
Justin Crosby held up a sign reading “anything helps” last week in front of Walmart. He said his message is generally true. He is thankful even for a smile.
However, he tries not to eat any food from strangers after getting food poisoning seven times in the 1½ years he has been homeless.
He’s also received gifts too big to be practical, he said. He claims a woman gave him a boat that he could not sail. On another occasion, a man gave him a manufactured house, but Crosby didn’t have any property to set it on.
However, on average, he makes about $30 a day, he said.
Panhandlers, particularly on Main Avenue, have been a topic of controversy for years. Several programs have been started to help tourists and residents feel safe.
So far this tourist season, complaints from business owners about panhandling have been nonexistent, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District.
“That issue is literally not coming up,” he said.
The cold spring might have contributed to fewer homeless residents coming to town, he said. But he couldn’t say how much of a difference that might make.
“I don’t pretend to know 100% who it is that is choosing to panhandle,” he said.
A new city ordinance prohibiting anyone from sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown also might be making a difference, Walsworth said, but he couldn’t say for sure.
Durango City Council approved the sit-lie ordinance last spring, describing it as a measure to protect public safety and keep sidewalks clear.
Since the measure was approved June 16, 2018, the Durango Police Department has issued four citations for violations of the sit-lie ordinance.
While panhandling hasn’t triggered complaints among business owners this year, the Business Improvement District plans to maintain programs aimed at addressing the problem.
The BID hires a seasonal homeless outreach coordinator to connect panhandlers with services and inform them they may be breaking the law, Walsworth said. For example, if a panhandler is sitting or lying on the sidewalk, the coordinator would talk to him or her about it, he said.
The district also hired seasonal downtown ambassadors to help tourists with questions and to report problematic and illegal behavior downtown, Walsworth said. The Ambassador program was started four years ago, and this year, 12 ambassadors have been hired to work about 900 hours, he said.
The district also runs a campaign called Make it Count to encourage residents and tourists to give to charities not to panhandlers in an effort to encourage panhandlers to move on. The campaign has generated about $3,300 since it was launched. Manna, Durango’s soup kitchen, the Durango Community Shelter and a Durango Christian Church program that provides emergency survival gear received the funding, Walsworth said.
However, some panhandlers are wary of soup kitchens and areas where other homeless residents and travelers congregate.
While panhandling near Walmart on Thursday, Dale Coriell, 59, said he didn’t seek assistance from Manna during the winter because he doesn’t want to get involved with other homeless people. Some of them tend to be “a little sketchy” and involved in illegal activity such as drug use, he said.
He spent the winter camping alone after arriving on Thanksgiving Day.
He lost his housing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after clashing with his girlfriend’s family. He left with just a sleeping bag and a few clothes.
“There’s very little actually worth carrying,” he said.
His minimalist philosophy seems to have extended a bit to his panhandling. If Coriell makes $20 panhandling, he’ll leave. But what he really wants is a job.
“I am still holding out hope for a job, but it’s hard to get presentable when you don’t have a home,” he said.
Crosby’s position on soup kitchens is similar to Coriell’s.
Crosby said he tends to stay away from areas where homeless residents congregate to avoid conflict and theft. Instead, he chooses to rely on the generosity of passers-by. In 1½ hours, he received $7 and a Pepsi.
Crosby said he has observed panhandlers who con the public. He watched some who dressed down in ratty clothes or used donated money for drugs. He’s not one of them.
“I am disabled. I’m hungry. I’m being honest,” he said.
In general, most panhandlers are interested in cash, socks and gift cards for food, he said.
But what Crosby really needs is a lawyer to help him fight for his federal disability benefits, he said. A serious spinal injury left him unable to work, he said.
He moves from town to town frequently, because if residents continue to see him on the streets, they see their help isn’t changing his situation, he said.
“If you stay in one place too long, it gets sad,” he said.