Panhandling growing despite decrease in homeless, police say

How to truly help panhandlers

This video looks at the realities of panhandling. (Courtesy of city of Wichita / Wichita Police Department)
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This video looks at the realities of panhandling. (Courtesy of city of Wichita / Wichita Police Department)

Wichita police are ramping up their campaign to discourage residents from giving money to panhandlers with a new video and more exposure for an information card.

The four-minute video features a formerly homeless man talking about earning $600 from panhandling over a four-hour period one day.

“Although the homeless population has decreased, the panhandling has increased,” Officer Paul Cruz said.

Police officials haven’t been able to pinpoint a reason.

“I honestly don’t know,” said Officer Nate Schwiethale, a member of the department’s Homeless Outreach Team.

Schwiethale dismisses suggestions that Wichitans are too generous with panhandlers.

“We’ve always been generous … so why now” has the panhandling jumped, he asked.

Police officials aren’t complaining about the community’s desire to help.

“That’s a good thing,” Schwiethale said. “It says a lot about our community.”

Chronic homelessness has fallen more than 70 percent in Wichita since the homeless outreach team was created in 2013, Schwiethale said. The nightly head count at the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter for men has fallen more than 30 percent since 2013, officials there say.

Officers talking to panhandlers have learned that many of them aren’t homeless, Schwiethale said. They simply ask for money to buy stuff they want.

Residents of east Wichita have likely seen a man standing in the island at the intersection of Central and Rock, asking for cash donations. Wendy Glick, executive director of Catholic Charities, said she’s been told the man takes his change in to the nearby Dillons a couple of times a month and cashes it in for hundreds of dollars.

Panhandling is a protected form of free speech in some states, but Kansas isn’t one of them. Wichita has an ordinance prohibiting panhandling.

Earlier this spring, Wichita police debuted brochures that people can give to panhandlers providing information about meals and services available to those in need. At the time, they stressed that giving panhandlers money “is adding to the problem.”

Along with the video, police are making “panhandling cards” more available than they have been in the past. The free cards, which are available at each of the city’s four substations, have the number of the outreach team for panhandlers to call for free resources.

The idea behind the card is residents can give one to panhandlers instead of money, police officials said.

“If they truly need help, we’ll get them the help that they need,” Schwiethale said. “If they’re just trying to get money for drugs and alcohol, they’ll just throw the card on the ground.”

Either way, he said, residents can feel as if they are helping those in need.

Union Rescue Mission executive director Denny Bender said he supports efforts to discourage panhandling, and he welcomes how police are handling it.

“The approach that Wichita seems to be taking is, ‘We’re not going to take punitive steps against those that are panhandling, but if we can eliminate the source of their income they won’t panhandle any more,’ ” Bender said.

Garland Egerton, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries, said he has noticed an increase in panhandling — and that it doesn’t just happen downtown any more.

“It’s organized,” Egerton said. “There’s a new guy in the Riverside area.”

He asked Egerton for money, who responded by giving him a card featuring available services for the homeless. The man gave it to a buddy, who tossed it on the ground, Egerton said.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger