It’s not uncommon to see a panhandler or two at a Columbia intersection.
Many are worried it’s becoming a safety concern, especially if people stop in traffic or panhandlers dart out into the road.
“It’s done on a very wide street, with a lot of fast-moving traffic,” said Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Business Loop Community Improvement District. “So we’re very worried about people’s safety, when it comes down to it.”
Instead of another quick fix for the problem, Gartner and the Business Loop CID is partnering with entities like Phoenix Health Programs to address what they believe is the underlying reason for the problem.
“The panhandling is a symptom, not the disease,” said Anthony Phillips, outreach coordinator for Phoenix. “The disease really, to use that metaphor, is the underlying homelessness.”
Gartner believes there are different avenues for those who want to help panhandlers at the intersections on the Business Loop.
“Columbia is a very compassionate community and we certainly do not want to discourage that,” said Gartner. “Maybe (the answer is to) direct that compassion towards a really organized effort to make long-term, meaningful changes in someone’s life.”
According to Phillips, those changes or options might be getting shelter or a decent meal. The Business Loop CID and Phoenix will work with agencies like the Columbia Police Department, Health and Human Services, the Veteran’s Administration, and New Horizons to achieve these goals.
He also stressed the important of offering substance abuse counseling or case management programs through Phoenix.
But he said to identify what those options might be, they’ll need to sit down with the panhandlers or the homeless one-on-one, so they can assess their needs at an individual level and not try to provide a blanket solution.
Phillips says there is a mandated survey called the Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT. It’s a ten minute interview where he can ask someone about their life and figure out what resources they personally need.
“It’s a very comprehensive tool that’s designed to really put a face on a homeless individual. They’re no longer just ‘the homeless’,” he said. “They’re people with whom we can build a rapport.”
There are about 80-100 people who are permanently homeless in Columbia and not just passing through. They’ll go through the interview process, and through that Phillips said they might be able to identify who isn’t homeless and panhandling just to take advantage of the situation.
He said that might be where local law enforcement gets involved.
But for those who really do need those resources, Gartner said it’s their goal to find exactly what they need long term, and not just a quick couple of dollars.
“What we learned more than anything is that it’s not one size fits all,” she said.
She said some ways they can put this into action is having a list of resources available to businesses on the loop so that they can provide panhandlers with that information.
“As we move people into getting appropriate services then they will have less and less need to be panhandling,” said Phillips.
Panhandling is not illegal in Columbia. There is an ordinance against aggressive panhandling that Gartner helped write. But she hopes even then they can still help people who violate the ordinance.
“There are certainly things that are done that violate city ordinance but the question is do we arrest someone and then a week later they’re back doing the same thing,” she said. “Or do we say what’s the underlying reason this is happening.”
She said they understand that they won’t be able to solve 100 percent of the problem because some of those aggressive panhandlers won’t accept a social service.