Boise Expands Effort to Deny Panhandlers


Chris panhandles every day. Some days are better than others.

"I got $150 in one hour," he said. "I'm pretty sure it was because I was begging with three of my children by my side."

On Black Friday, a day when a lot of cash was swapping hands across the Treasure Valley, Chris wasn't getting too much of it. At the driveway in front of the Northgate Plaza on State Street in Boise, most passersby avoided eye contact. Some smiled, a few waved. In one hour's time, two drivers offered part of their lunch from a nearby Jack In The Box. Chris quickly handed the food to one of his 16-year-old boys (one of a set of triplets).

"The kids always eat before me," he said, but grabbed a fistful of fries.

Chris is a big man: about 6 feet tall, nearly 300 pounds. Bony white skin poked out from a full beard. We talked about how he used to work for Hewlett-Packard and Domino's Pizza and about how he still has four of his five children (his oldest daughter is in foster care). The conversation was sad but spirited.

"I still have my arrogance, but not my pride," said Chris. "Pride doesn't pay the bills."

The conversation took a turn when asked about "Have a Heart. Give Smart," Boise's effort to combat panhandling and divert funds directly to charities.

"They want to take food out of my mouth." His voice escalated. "Out of my children's mouths!"

When asked about the logic behind the program, Chris walked away. "Don't talk to me anymore," his voice trailed off.

A sociologist, philanthropist, or simply a good citizen might define "real life change" for a person in need to be health care, a job or a home. But for Chris, one of the hundreds of Boise men and women who don't have health care, a job or a home, "real life change" is a hamburger, a beer or toilet paper. And there you have the gaping chasm between good intentions and great need.

Yet Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is risking criticism and limited resources in what may be the biggest of gambles but noblest of efforts: helping the homeless with day-to-day needs while waging a marathon war against chronic homelessness.

Long-gone is the city's multi-million dollar venture to operate the homeless shelter Community House. The city recognized that it should not be a landlord for Boise's homeless. A federal lawsuit and subsequent transition of ownership to Boise Rescue Mission confirmed that. That facility is now known as the River of Life and is run by Boise Rescue Mission.

"The mayor recognized that there are bigger community issues that affect the livability of everyone," said Theresa McLeod, Bieter's special assistant. "He would like us to be demonstrating leadership and convening groups together for solutions."

McLeod said she spends anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of her time with those groups, brainstorming on homelessness and other social service issues. That includes CATCH (the city's program to provide permanent housing for homeless families), Allumbaugh House (Boise's new detox center) and the newly created Continuum Care Coordinating Team, which oversees a 10-year plan to eradicate chronic homelessness.

It was an increasing number of citizen complaints that led to the Have a Heart campaign. In particular, police bicycle patrols reported an increase of panhandling outside the Albertsons grocery store at State and 16th streets. The city was granted permission to borrow a similar campaign from Seattle, and last summer, posters and flyers began appearing at the Albertsons, urging shoppers not to give to panhandlers but rather donate to charities that could provide assistance to the homeless

"The city has an aggressive panhandling ordinance on the books now," said Bieter spokesman Adam Park. "If someone is demonstrating threatening behavior, that would be prosecuted. But simply asking for money in a public space is legal. There are some discussions about revising the ordinance but we don't expect to see that until sometime next year."

In the meantime, city leaders considered the pilot program a success.

"Police told us that panhandling decreased at the Albertsons by at least 10 percent. More importantly, store employees said they felt really good about the program. They said they had new tools about where to direct a homeless person for services," said McLeod.

The Boise City Council agreed to expand the program, voting unanimously to add $15,000 to the $10,000 already set aside from last year's economic development fund. Even more posters, flyers and stickers are expected to surface at about 100 retail locations, with most going to grocery stores and downtown merchants.

Simply put, the flyers ask citizens not to give to panhandlers. But if Boiseans want to engage, they're encouraged to point the homeless toward a list of providers including shelters, food sources and caregivers. Addresses and phone numbers are included to encourage donations to the charitable organizations.

Chris the panhandler didn't want to hear about the brochures. But another panhandler, Dan, who was asking for help at 15th and Front streets said he regularly took advantage of the services listed in the tri-fold.

"You bet, I take advantage of nearly all of them," he said. "But I still want the cash. Can you blame me?"