As the economy has faltered, more individuals stake out street corners, grab their cups and cardboard signs and solicit money from strangers. Their signs are plaintive: “lost job,” “single mom,” “unemployed veteran,” or “have cancer/no insurance.”
Some motorists are motivated to help these individuals, handing out whatever spare change they have in their possession or distributing carefully-assembled plastic bags with toiletries and snacks. But how do you know that your donation is really helping someone in need?
Panhandling does not equal homelessness
That’s why the City of Houston, spearheaded by Mayor Sylvester Turner, has developed a new program aimed at bringing help to those who really want to get off the streets. The campaign, which is supported by numerous faith leaders, non-profit organizations, civic association and management districts, encourages Houstonians to give organizations working to end homelessness rather than give to panhandlers on the street.
More than 100 organizations work through the Houston Coalition for the Homeless to offer assistance to individuals and help them get off the streets. Most advocates for the homeless are in agreement that giving to panhandlers keeps needy people from seeking long-term solutions like housing, health care or employment. “You’re not really helping someone by giving them money,” said Sonya Scott, chief operating officer of West Houston Assistance Ministries. “It just allows them to continue living in their current circumstances. Please direct them to WHAM where we can offer a path out of homelessness.”
WHAM offers help in West Houston
WHAM, located at 10501 Meadowglen Lane, provides a variety of services to help individuals and families in need, “We’ll offer food from our pantry, plus food and clothes,” said Scott. “We’ll even help them find a job if they’re ready for that. There are many barriers to helping a person out of homelessness. Sometimes it’s mental illness or lack of any identification. It can take up to a year to get them situated, but we can help them get into temporary housing and off the streets.”
Mayor Turner encourages individuals to contribute to the The Way Home fund through meaningfulchange.org. All of the contributions received will go toward helping a homeless person settle into permanent housing. The campaign is being promoted throughout Houston with billboards, bus stop signage, social media and radio ads.
Panhandlers draw complaints
“Complaints against street solicitation and aggressive panhandling are the top complaints that come in to the Westchase District offices from our stakeholders,” said Mark Hubenak, public safety director. “We hope this program will result in getting the proper resources to help individuals escape homelessness and fewer police resources being used to respond to complaints of panhandling.”
For Houston’s homeless, there really is a “way home,” if they’ll just take advantage of it.