Living in the downtown of any big city has advantages and disadvantages. We love living in downtown Orlando because of the walkability, all the entertainment options, the fine arts events, Lake Eola Park, and the charming historic districts.
Urban areas also attract folks who need help, maybe because of mental illness, discrimination, bad luck, or other reasons. Some of these folks, and perhaps able-bodied people as well, turn to panhandling. For panhandlers, the large numbers of pedestrians downtown and cars coming off the expressway ramps make for better odds of receiving a quick buck. Whether or not we know for certain the motives for panhandling, or how the money is used, the City of Orlando has started a campaign to redirect giving and discourage panhandling.
At a recent “What’s Up Downtown” meeting sponsored by the Downtown Orlando Information Center and Downtown Development Board, Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolon made a direct appeal to citizens: Please don’t give out money to panhandlers. Local ordinances regulating panhandling were recently struck down at the federal level, and panhandling has increased. Thomas Chatmon, executive director of the Downtown Development Board, said the City researched what other cities were doing to address panhandling, and observed that no one seemed to have a long, successful program, so they decided to try an idea that looked promising. This gave rise to the Give Smart campaign.
Chatmon says they realized that givers weren’t going away, and that their behavior needed to be redirected. Now, folks can text GIVE SMART to 85511 to donate to existing, professional organizations that can provide real help to those in need. The Heart of Florida United Way administers the program for the city, and givers can choose where to direct their money. Options include housing, food, clothing and personal hygiene, healthcare and mental health, and jobs.
Go to GiveSmartOrlando.org to learn more and make donations. According to the website, donations will be distributed to agencies that are part of the region’s Housing First initiative, including the Homeless Services Network, Health Care Center for the Homeless, Pathway Homes, and the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. To date, the Housing First initiative has placed more than 339 chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing.
The website goes on to say that “while many people give to panhandlers with the best of intentions…this type of giving does not ultimately help the individual get off the streets and into housing. Instead, it nurtures further panhandling activities, which can lead to aggressive panhandling techniques that have a negative impact on downtown’s workers, residents, visitors, businesses, and reputation.”
Chief Rolon is open to residents’ ideas and is embracing technology, including the texting option, as a way to reduce panhandling. “We also need to partner with the private sector,” says Rolon. The revived Downtown Ambassadors program is also helping to change the behavior of panhandling, while assisting the chronically homeless to find longterm support. Additionally, the City is working on better signage to discourage panhandling and encourage the Give Smart campaign.