Downtown businesses have asked nicely. They’ve moved or removed benches. They’ve called the police.
And now they’re trying something new – a campaign asking people to donate to local nonprofits that help the economically insecure among us rather than handing cash to panhandlers.
“Like many communities around the country, Durango has experienced an increase in panhandling,” said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District, which is leading the “Make it Count! Durango Cares!” campaign. “We are not heartless, and as a community we have put together a Homeless Coalition to address the bigger needs, but the BID’s constituents – basically our merchants downtown – have requested we try to do something now.”
The something now is a small handbill explaining why people should not donate to panhandlers and should donate to “reputable” local human-services agencies, putting information about 10 of those agencies on the back.
BID is encouraging merchants to insert the handbills in shopping bags and restaurants to add them when returning checks to diners’ tables. Posters for businesses’ windows are also available. Handbills and posters are available at the BID office. Walsworth said he knows it is late in the season to be trying this gambit, but it took time to determine a careful way to address the problem.
Fall and winter weather may prompt transients to move on, and the issue may appear to have been resolved, he said.
“But come spring, we expect they will be back,” he said. “We want to test the waters now with our constituents with this effort, and then be prepared for a larger public-awareness campaign come spring, to get ahead of any potential problems.”
Terminology matters in the campaign.
“BID is making a distinction between people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and transient panhandlers,” Walsworth said. “Anyone can be in a public place like downtown Durango and ask for donations. Even so, the manner in which some people ask for money and the places they choose to do so are hurting our downtown businesses and are harming our reputation.”
BID is also differentiating between buskers – people selling jewelry or performing – and panhandlers, he said.
“Every now and then buskers and panhandlers in the ‘traditional sense’ appear to be the same kind of person,” Walsworth said. “But some street performers really add to downtown, so while we had some conversations about busking, we’re not doing anything in that regard right now.”
Panhandling became more prevalent in Durango after the American Civil Liberties Union notified the city of Durango in fall 2014 that its blanket prohibition of loitering for purposes of begging was a violation of free speech. Since then, the Durango City Council has passed ordinances against aggressive panhandling, blocking sidewalks and begging in certain medians where it may be dangerous.
“We know (the program) is not going to completely solve the problem,” Walsworth said. “But if these transient panhandlers can’t make a living on our streets, perhaps they’ll choose another town.”