Panhandling frustrates residents, shop owners

The Delano neighborhood of west Wichita has blossomed as a colorful collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. But people who live and work there fear it has become too popular with another segment of the city's population: panhandlers.

So many people have been begging for money or alcohol that the Delano Neighborhood Association has held three meetings on the issue in the past month alone.

"It's very bad," said Dave Schoket, who with his wife, Susan, owns Delano Retail Liquor at 1110 W. Maple. "Some of them brag about making $50 a day hanging around the convenience stores and Dollar General," which are virtually across the street from each other on Douglas near Seneca.

Residents shouldn't give money to panhandlers if they are approached, said Janis Cox, co-chairwoman of Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness. Chances are, they'll use the money for alcohol, cigarettes or sex rather than food or bills.

"If the money's going to be used for substance abuse or prostitution, it's not in our best interest to give them money," she said. "I think there are many tender-hearted people, and for them giving money is actually the easy way out. It relieves their consciences, but it doesn't necessarily help" the panhandlers.

Some of the panhandlers are homeless residents who visit the area from their makeshift dwellings along the river, Schoket and others said. Many of the regulars are people who have a place to stay and are struggling to make ends meet.

"There are many more people becoming homeless or on the brink of it than there used to be, so that brings a wider variety of people into these situations," Cox said. "And some of those are going to be people who are more brazen about it.

"It's not the typical chronic homeless that people have known and dealt with for years."

At least some of the panhandlers, Cox said, are either unwilling to use or are unaware of the services they can access to improve their situations. Others are looking for cash to finance addictions.

Joe Buell, manager of the Vagabond Cafe at 614 W. Douglas, said it's not unusual for panhandlers to approach customers relaxing on the front patio.

"I try to discourage it," he said.

A woman relaxing with a cigarette on the Vagabond's patio during her lunch break said she has often been approached by panhandlers — but they ask her for cigarettes, not money.

"I'll give 'em one," she said, identifying herself only as Angie because she wanted to protect her identity.

She works at a nearby insurance office, and she admits to being nervous when the panhandlers come in and ask for water or a break from the weather. It's not a large office, she said, and she feels vulnerable.

"Some of them are pretty scary and persistent," Schoket said. "The normal pedestrians would be taken aback by them."

QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh acknowledged panhandling is "a problem — not just for QuikTrip but for any retail outlet."

"We need the customer's help — we may not see it," Thornbrugh said. "The problem is they'll come back within an hour or two.... You do the best you can."

QT is a popular spot for panhandlers, he said, because so many people stop by during the day.

Wichita police have developed a pamphlet of services available to the homeless that merchants can print from the department's website and hand out to any panhandlers that come into their business.

"The police, they've been on top of it pretty well," Schoket said. "If you call 911, they're here in a second."

But it may take more of a police presence to curb the problem, he said.

Panhandling is against the law in Wichita, said Lt. Doug Nolte of the Wichita Police Department. A permit is required to solicit money, and it can only be done at certain times in certain locations for approved reasons, he said.

Delano is a natural congregating point for the homeless because a lot of them sleep along the river, which is only a few blocks away.

"With Delano being an up-and-coming neighborhood with the merchants, they're seeing a lot more of it because of proximity," Nolte said. "At the same time we see it all over" the city, including in the area of 32nd Street North and Rock Road.

For merchants who want people to feel comfortable window shopping or browsing specialty stores, the panhandling issue isn't just a nuisance — it could hurt business.

"Definitely," Schoket said. "I've seen it happen on my corner. Somebody will be sitting in their car, waiting for someone to come out of a store."

Panhandlers will come up "and tap on their windows," he said, "and the people will just freak out and say 'Go away! Go away!' "