As Evanston looks to post signs discouraging panhandling, some residents question


Photo Courtesy to Max Nelson

Evanston’s downtown — a place for all residents to gather and those in need looking for spare change will soon have signs discouraging panhandling.

Shannon Tyler, Reporter

In an effort to curb what she called aggressive panhandling, interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski proposed last month the “Have a Heart, Give Smart” campaign to discourage people from giving cash gifts to those in need and instead donating to local organizations. 

Gandurski intends to post signs around the city that say “Panhandling is unsafe” with a phone number to connect people to resources and a QR code people can scan to find organizations to donate to.

Stephen Craig, who grew up in Evanston and is now experiencing homelessness, said because panhandling is legal nationwide, Gandurski’s campaign will not stop people from asking for money or giving money.

“I don’t like the word panhandling,” Craig said. “What I do is no different from what you or anyone else does — which is ask for help.” 

Gandurski said there is a distinction between panhandling and aggressive panhandling, which she said makes people feel intimidated and is banned through city law. 

Gandurski got the anti-panhandling sign idea from Rockford, a northeastern Illinois city, and proposed this campaign in response to some residents in the 1st Ward expressing concern about aggressive panhandling. 

“We think that’s a safer way for people to give while balancing the thoughtfulness that our community members have with their generosity of wanting to do something to help. That’s really what the campaign is about,” Gandurski said. 

Resident Karla Thomas said in her nine years living in Evanston, she has never experienced aggressive panhandling. She said “aggressive” is a racialized word. 

“Was it real aggression or is that racialized, general fear that people have for others who are different from them?” she said.

Legal director for National Homelessness Law Center Eric Tars said if there is an actual instance of aggression, there are laws to protect people. His center researches misconceptions around panhandling.

He said his research shows the vast majority of funds raised by those panhandling goes to meeting their immediate need to survive. Tars also said there is no research that demonstrates anti-panhandling signs are effective and change people’s behavior.

“This lends itself to this narrative that people experiencing homelessness are aggressive and are a threat in our communities when the truth is that people experiencing homelessness are far more often the victims of violent crime than they are the perpetrators,” Tars said.

Gandurski and the city’s Homeless Task Force brainstormed ways to address and provide solutions for those in need. Gandurski said the group discussed providing emergency shelter on cold nights, subsidizing emergency hotel rooms and panhandling, among other issues. 

Some cities across the country have posted anti-panhandling signs including Anchorage, Alaska, whose government received backlash after the city cited an unconstitutional law prohibiting panhandling.

Thomas said that this campaign focuses on one symptom of a much larger problem. She said those who are panhandling have been failed by the government. 

“Putting up signs to stop panhandling is like saying we need a coughing vaccine when we have a COVID problem, coughing is not the problem, right? This virus is the problem,” Thomas said. 

Craig said he doesn’t think the posters will discourage people from helping him and others in need. He said he knows that those who want to help him will, but he said he doesn’t understand why the city is putting them up.

“I don’t know anybody in the world who doesn’t need help,” Craig said. “Why would you want to discourage somebody from helping somebody else?” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @shannonmtyler

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