In January, after WMRA aired a report about panhandlers, many listeners wanted to know more about the services available to them, and about the best way to respond or help. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz took those questions to some of the people working on the front lines.
Last week at a stoplight on Court Square in Harrisonburg I saw a man holding an empty coffee cup out to cars. I had just come from an interview about panhandlers, and there was one. I parked and approached him.
He was leery of my microphone: Panhandling is “degrading,” he said, but necessary until he can turn his life around. He’s getting help for alcoholism, and is on a waiting list for housing, and stays in a shelter at night.
CLYMER KURTZ: What kind of a response do you get from people when you’re out here with your coffee cup?
“Usually not bad,” he said.
SHANNON PORTER: I think that panhandlers are a symptom of a larger problem.
This is Shannon Porter, executive director of Mercy House, right along High Street in Harrisonburg.
PORTER: The problem ultimately comes down to things like affordable housing, and it comes down to the ability of people who have barriers – mental health, substance abuse, physical barriers – to be able to subsist and make a living. That ultimately is a reflection of our economic health as a community, and the equity of our community.
There are a variety of services available to panhandlers and others in need. In Charlottesville a number of churches serve meals, and there’s a morning day shelter where people can shower, do laundry, and use a computer.
PACEM is a seasonal evening and night shelter there. People often ask executive director Jayson Whitehead about panhandlers, and he says that giving money to a panhandler is a personal decision. He suggests giving small-denomination gift cards to nearby businesses or restaurants, or directing people to local services.
JAYSON WHITEHEAD: They could certainly contact area homeless services and say an individual’s panhandling at this intersection and they’re worried because it’s going to be really cold that evening, ‘cause we do have what are called path workers that go out into the community and would go and track down that gentleman or that lady.
In Charlottesville, a one-page “street sheet” compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless for local workers to keep on hand lists everything from soup kitchens to thrift stores and much more. Harrisonburg’s version of the handy resource is maintained by the Community Resource Center, where coordinator Mary Beth Hill is available to point people to services.
She suggests that instead of cash, people keep granola or protein bars on hand for panhandlers, or once they’ve lent a listening ear, share the resource guide.
MARY BETH HILL: If you can connect them with people and agencies that have resources and sustainability then maybe they could work towards a more stable lifestyle.
She also recommends supporting the organizations working the front lines, such as Our Community Place, or OCP, where volunteers are preparing for a Friday lunch fundraiser.
[Sounds of kitchen/restaurant setup]
Many of these volunteers also use OCP’s services – meals, lockers, showers, laundry, phone and Internet – but executive director Sam Nickels said that OCP also offers something even more meaningful: community.
SAM NICKELS: Sometimes it’s just treating people with dignity and asking them about their lives or enjoying conversing over a meal.
The administrative director of OCP is Eric Olson-Getty. He said that putting together the building blocks of stability is an arduous process made even more complex by mental health and other issues.
ERIC OLSON-GETTY: When I look at a panhandler on the street and think, “Well, I know how to solve that person’s issue, maybe if I just go help them find a job, one thing will lead to another and their life will be fixed” -- it’s just not true. And so I think even entering into relationship and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are, what their life experiences have been, what the challenges are that they face right in front of themselves, I’ve learned that the answers are not quick, simple, or easy.
But the people out on street corners represent only the tip of the poverty iceberg. Celest Williams is the director of the Harrisonburg Rockingham Social Services District.
CELEST WILLIAMS: Seventeen percent of our population lives below the poverty line. There’s a lot of people right above that, too, I think, that really need our assistance and different resources in the community to make ends meet.
CLYMER KURTZ: That’s a huge percentage of people. Why aren’t there more panhandlers out there?
WILLIAMS: True, right? You have to be pretty desperate, unfortunately.
Maybe the presence of panhandlers puts an edge on a community’s conscience, and demands empathy.
Sam Nickels, of OCP:
NICKELS: I would encourage people to mentally put themselves in the shoes of these folks. Go out on the street for a couple hours and ask for donations, and see how you’re treated, and see the kind of stares that you get.
Back on Court Square last week, I felt like I needed to do something for the man with the empty coffee cup.
CLYMER KURTZ: What are you going to do for lunch today?
He said a nearby church would be serving lunch, so I thanked him for talking with me, and went on my way.
Links to more guides and directories of resources for personal needs: