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June 12, 2017

Philly mayor: Don't give cash to panhandlers

The number of panhandlers on Philadelphia's streets is increasing, a trend that city officials believe is a byproduct of the opioid crisis.

But Mayor Jim Kenney and city officials urged people not to give them money during a press conference on Monday, saying such acts too often feed addiction.

Instead, city officials encouraged people to donate money to the Office of Homeless Services through a newly-launched digital fundraising campaign. The funds will be allocated to nonprofit groups that provide housing, jobs and social services to homeless people.

By texting "Share" to 80077, people can quickly donate $5, with the contribution being charged to their cellphone bills. The Office of Homeless Services plans to match the donations.

"We are not standing idly by," said Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services. "We are trying everything we can to attack these problems in a humane, caring, dignified way."

The city's 2017 homeless count found 956 people living without shelter, Hersh said, with large increases in Kensington.

The city also has witnessed an uptick in panhandling, a trend seen in other major American cities.

Not all panhandlers are homeless, Hersh said, but the city found many of them to be suffering from addiction.

The city's managing director's office interviewed 129 panhandlers between November and January. The panhandlers said they used their money to buy drugs, food and housing.

"When we looked at the demographics, what we saw was long tentacles of the opioid crisis affecting life on the street, among the most vulnerable people," Hersh said. "We saw that the demographics were very similar to the opioid population."

Hersh encouraged people to treat panhandlers with friendliness and kindness. She suggested people talk with them, buy them a meal or point them in the direction of social services.

But she advised them against giving them cash, saying it likely will feed the cycle of addiction and homelessness.

"There are other ways to help them meet their needs," Hersh said.

City officials said the fundraising campaign encourages generosity while discouraging panhandling as a viable economic activity.

They also stressed that the fundraising campaign should not be viewed as a panacea to homelessness, panhandling or addiction, saying it is one of many efforts the city is taking to combat the problems.

Last year, the city launched a "Hot Spots in Prime Times" initiative that increased calls to the Outreach Coordination Center by 50 percent, Hersh said.

In the last fiscal year, Hersh said the city helped 927 homeless families gain permanent housing. The city also added 133 housing units last year. And Kenney has budgeted an additional $1 million to add 70 new housing units next year.

"These are people who are complex, who have complex problems," Kenney said. "We need to understand that. There's no one-size-fits-all for anyone who is on the street. ... Again, the opioid crisis has just exacerbated this problem. It's created all kinds of problems throughout the city."

Kenney said police will not arrest panhandlers for loitering on the streets, saying that ultimately will not solve the problem.

"You have to approach this in a very concise and measured approach so that in the end, it's actually effective," Kenney said. "You can move people all day long. But if they're never going to get their issues solved or addressed, then we're going to be moving people forever."

The fundraising campaign will run until the end of September, when city officials will evaluate its effectiveness.

The campaign will benefit homeless services provided by about 65 nonprofits, including Project HOME, Bethesda Project, Broad Street Ministry and Pathways to Housing.