Siupelimani “Tiny” Muti spends his nights in homeless shelters and usually hangs out on Main Street during the day. He panhandles for cigarettes only, he says, but knows some panhandlers are very successful at asking for money—especially those comfortable talking to strangers. As a lapsed Mormon who served an LDS mission in California in 1999, he recognizes that the skills taught to missionaries also work for people asking for money.
“One [panhandler] uses the missionary tactic: Never give up,” Muti said. “It takes balls to walk up to someone constantly. I was an LDS missionary for two years, so I know how that is.”
Muti said he’s aware of the proposed panhandling ordinance in Salt Lake City, and it concerns him, for reasons beyond smoking. He worries that he and his klatch of mostly homeless friends who congregate on Main Street may still be hassled by those enforcing the new rules.
The intention of the ordinance is not to hassle homeless people, says Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. Instead, he wants to prohibit only aggressive and persistent panhandling. Becker says he has received multiple complaints from people who “talk about how they are afraid to go to certain locations.” The mayor declined to list any trouble spots.
The mayor’s stated goal was lost on some, including Crossroads Urban Center´s low-income housing director Tim Funk. He worries that the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly by homeless people could be violated if even one person within a group panhandles.
Also, the ordinance proposal would ban many types of panhandling that are not aggressive nor persistent. For example, any after-dark “commercial solicitation,” defined as “addressing the request for [anything of value] to any specific person,” would be expressly prohibited. Funk said forbidding panhandling near ATMs makes sense, but no other provision in the proposal is worthwhile or fair.
The Downtown Alliance supports the ordinance, although, like the mayor’s office, is open to revisions of the current proposal. Executive director Jason Mathis said the proposal should not affect homeless people who are not panhandling. It may even help the homeless, since the alliance plans an education campaign to convince the public that “most panhandlers are not actually homeless,” and that donations would be put to better use at a charity.
While the claim that most panhandlers are not homeless seems reasonable, the homeless and panhandlers interviewed by City Weekly for this story offered differing opinions.
Vanessa Cowan, who frequently panhandles around Temple Square, began panhandling when she and her husband needed money to repair their broken-down car, which was also where they lived. They never earned enough to repair it, so they applied for public assistance and received subsidies in June for an apartment. But they have few possessions and little ability to work due to disabilities, so even though she has a home, she still panhandles.
Other homeless people say they lack the skills to panhandle successfully.
“I tried it, and it took me half an hour to get a quarter out of an LDS missionary for a can of soda,” says Garry McDonald, who has physical disabilities and lives in homeless shelters. “Nobody ever gives me money.”
Like Funk, Muti suggested the city develop programs that help homeless people become productive, rather than restrict panhandling.
After years as a professional outreach coordinator for the homeless, Lorraine Levi has been homeless herself for two years due to physical disabilities.
She has never asked strangers for money but did receive a donation once when, while waiting for the bus and counting coins in her open palm, a man gave her a dollar. “I felt very destitute and embarrassed that someone would give me a dollar when I’m counting change for the bus,” Levi says.
One person who is a successful panhandler, and proud of it, is Kerry Thorstead. He says his best session in the past two years earned him $98 in less than two hours, which he accomplished while “flying a sign” that read “Stranded Time Traveler: Need money for flux capacitor.” Thorstead is homeless, but is blacklisted at the shelters because of previous drunken brawls there.
“Back when I was drinking heavily, it was for alcohol,” he admits. “But the last six months or so, it’s been for food or cigarettes.”
Thorstead said he has almost entirely quit drinking and has quit all drugs. While aware of the debate about the panhandling ordinance, Thorstead said he isn’t worried, since passively soliciting donations with a sign is allowed in the proposed ordinance.
Outside of panhandling, the homeless can ask for work. Rafeal Cardena- Hernandez, Pierrot De Souza and Carlos Fernandez , who are staying in a shelter and were recently enjoying a cool breeze in Pioneer Park, are among the ranks of Utah’s homeless day laborers. Every weekday, they gather with dozens of other workers near 400 South and Rio Grande Street seeking short-term work. These days, work comes slowly.
“If you work one day, you are lucky,” Hernandez said. “If you work one day, you have to think, do I buy shoes or food?”
All three men said new panhandling limitations are fine, since they don’t do it anyway. They did worry about the elderly and disabled who have no other income.
One of the problems, Downtown Alliance´s Mathis said, is that “panhandlers encourage that association” between panhandling and homelessness. While he has no data to back the claim, he says it is a conclusion reached based on anecdotal evidence from homeless advocates who say “their clients are not panhandling.” Addressing the problem will not be a single-track approach of enforcement, but “a concerted effort” of businesses, government, and social service providers.
The mayor’s office is currently seeking public comment on the city´s proposal. The six-page ordinance can be found at www.ci.slc.ut.us/mayor/pages/ord_panhandling.pdf.