The mayor of Utah’s second largest city is going on the offensive against panhandlers, urging residents to “be nice” but to not give them money and to call police if they feel threatened.
According to West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder, panhandling is a growing problem in his city. In an opinion column published Wednesday in the West Valley Journal, Winder describes panhandling as a “business enterprise” conducted by people who usually are not homeless and who want the money for drugs or “other self-destructive behavior.”
Panhandlers are also a problem, Winder wrote, because they “can become aggressive and cause people to feel less safe.” In an interview, he said donating to charities that provide for the needy is a better option.
“Rather than give to panhandlers, which just encourages the problem, it’s better to give to legitimate charitable organizations, and that’s money better spent,” he said.
Kathy Bray, the president and CEO of Utah’s Volunteers of America, which operates a homeless outreach program, agrees with Winder that giving to reputable charities is better than handing out cash on the street. But she said no one knows what percentage of panhandlers actually are homeless and that many beg because they are “desperate.”
“We don’t really know the full scope of panhandling and what people do with the money,” she said.
In the column, Winder noted some “exciting urban developments” in his city, including construction of its four-star hotel. But “we are also seeing some urban trends that are less desirable like panhandling.” In the interview, he said he is trying to be proactive.
“A year or two ago it was nonexistent in our city and this summer it seems quite prevalent,” said Winder. “I’ve had a number of people reach out to me and say ‘Gee mayor, can’t we do something about that?’”
Mayors have fewer options for dealing with panhandlers in light of a court ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in March that said panhandling is protected speech and anyone has a right to beg in a public space.
Some West Valley City residents think Winder is right.
“I agree with that,” said Ryane Ernst. “I don’t feel that I should give my hard-earned money to somebody that’s gonna sit there.”
Resident Angela Viphongsay “totally” agrees with Winder. “People at the homeless shelter are actually seeking for help. People like panhandlers are asking for money. They could be lying to you.”
But not everyone plans to heed the mayor’s suggestions. West Valley resident Aurora Sotelo said panhandlers deserve help, even if people don’t know the particulars of why they are asking for money.
“I think we should give them money. You never know when you are going to be in that position,” Sotelo said.
Houston Myrick, 30, who stood Wednesday outside of Smith’s on 4643 S. 4000 West with a cardboard sign that read “Anything Helps,” said he is asking for money because he is homeless and often doesn’t have work.
Myrick said he sleeps behind a nearby furniture store most nights. He said he sometimes works for a temporary employment agency, but when there’s no work for him, he begs on street corners. He said he is originally from Sacramento, but has lived in Utah for 16 years.
Another West Valley panhandler, Andrew Proctor, said he works for the same temp agency as Myrick, and acknowledged with a laugh that he is not homeless. But like Myrick, he tries to make ends meet by standing on street corners when he doesn’t have work.
One woman who refused to give her name held a sign that said “Pregnant & homeless. Please help. Thank you. It’s a boy,” as she stood on the street corner outside Walmart, 3180 S. 5600 West.
“It’s not fun to stand out here. It’s hot and miserable,” said the 30-year-old.
Responding to Winder’s claim that many panhandlers use the money they get to satisfy addictions, the woman said, “it’s true with some people, but then there are people out there that are really trying to survive.”
She said she lives at the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City and uses the money she gets from panhandling to eat and ride the bus. She said would rather work than beg, but she can’t get a job because she has a felony conviction.
Myrick had no response to Winder’s contention that most panhandlers aren’t homeless and the mayor’s advice that would-be helpers give to charity. But when asked what people could do for him, he gestured to his sign. “That’s why it says anything helps.”