To give or not to give?
Dealing with those who ask for money on Nashville’s streets can pose a daily moral dilemma for those who live and work downtown, and in some other parts of the city.
Moreover, in addition to posing discomfort, members of Nashville’s Downtown Partnership say panhandling negatively affects the city’s economic development.
“This is a basic economic development issue. Visitors to our city make decisions based on their experiences here,” said Tom Turner, president of the Nashville Downtown Partnership. “The decisions employees make about whether to work at that location or patronize a business [include] a ‘comfort factor.’ Panhandling makes people feel unsafe, and aggressive panhandling is assault.”
Panhandling in Nashville has been a growing concern among local economic development officials for several years, according to Turner, prompting collaborations with Metro Police.
On July 2, the Downtown Partnership launched what is likely the city’s first business-prompted public campaign against panhandling. The campaign is intended to steer panhandlers to existing social services and away from individual solicitations.
Turner calls Nashville’s panhandling an “increasing crisis,” brought about by more business, residence and entertainment options downtown. The partnership’s campaign — which consists primarily of education — mirrors the actions of other cities, including Memphis, Denver, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Seattle.
Asking for money in public places is not illegal here, Turner said. What the partnership calls “aggressive panhandling” — demanding money, physical touching or not leaving pedestrians alone — can fall into the category of assault, Turner said, and is illegal.
The campaign does not move for any changes in laws.
“Giving to panhandlers is a lose-lose situation,” according to information from the campaign. “You lose because they often use your money to support their addictions to alcohol and drugs and they lose by continuing these destructive behaviors.”
Instead of responding to a solicitation by giving money, the campaign suggests politely saying no. Panhandlers can be referred to call 211 to be connected with social resources, or given bottles of water or food gift certificates instead of cash.
But some members of the local social services community say they disagree with the campaign’s assumption that not giving money to panhandlers will alleviate the problem.
Cathie Buckner, a formerly homeless woman now active with the Homeless Power Project and a member of the educational committee of the Mayor’s Commission to End Homelessness, said the program does not show many signs of being developed with information from the local social services community.
“Businesses are trying to do the business of social services,” Buckner said. “The answer is housing with services. We need it. Nashville does not have enough shelters.”
Referring people to call 211 doesn’t usually help solve immediate problems, as homeless people have an increasingly tough time accessing telephones, she said, noting that the number of outdoor pay phones has dwindled downtown.
Buckner also disagrees with the assumption that Nashville has adequate social resources to alleviate the serious problems of all the city’s panhandlers — if there were enough shelter space in town, people wouldn’t sleep on benches, she said.
She said that some of those who panhandle in Nashville are not homeless, and have simply found solicitation to be a source of income. Panhandlers who really are homeless tend to have been walking the streets for many years; otherwise, they would have better options, she said. Buckner said full-time panhandlers aren’t likely to earn much money in this way.
As to how to tell the difference between someone who really needs the money and someone who may not, Buckner recommends following your instincts.
“You have to just go with your gut feeling, and a lot of time, that’s right,” Buckner said. “For the ones that are in need, I wouldn’t want to be the person who didn’t feed someone when they were hungry. But that’s me.”