From the Fort Collins Coloradoan editorial board on Aug. 11.A man waiting at a busy Fort Collins street corner is asking for money.
He knows that if he stands there long enough, someone will give it to him.
Fort Collins, though, doesn’t seem to know how to handle this situation.
Not just the city – which ran afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union with a 2015 crackdown on panhandling and ensuing efforts to blunt “disruptive behaviors” linked to the city’s homeless and transient population – but its residents and visitors, too.
Popular opinion about how to handle concerns surrounding the city’s increasingly visible issues of homelessness runs the gamut, from busing transients out of the county to building rent-free housing for Fort Collins’ long-term homeless. Consensus has been hard to come by.
Even efforts to direct money to common needs can be seen as misdirected.
A 2014 effort to curb panhandling by encouraging donations to “care meters” set up in Old Town, rather than individuals, was met with resistance from homeless advocates who called the parking meter-like structures demeaning and ineffective.
A similar initiative in Denver, which directed meter donations to efforts to fight homelessness, saw initial donations of $100,000 in the first year drop off sharply as the meters blended into the cityscape in ensuing years.
But on the topic of panhandling, a major cross-section of the city seems to be united: Residents would prefer to not be asked for money when they and their families stroll the sidewalks of Old Town or wait at the red lights that line College Avenue.
So how should we treat that man waiting at the corner today? The Coloradoan Editorial Board has grappled with this question for months and remains split on the issue of whether city leaders should work again to discourage panhandling in Fort Collins. But through conversations with numerous stakeholders, we’ve come to view this issue through the lens of respect and dignity.
Fort Collins is a city with a big heart, full of people who want to do right by others. But if we provide for panhandlers simply to soothe our conscience or to make the immediate problem of the ask for money go away, we do nothing to respect dignity.
Most times, too, we are slapping a $1 Band-Aid on a wound that requires greater care.
So what are we to do? Outreach Fort Collins program director Nick Verni-Lau gives this advice: Don’t ignore panhandlers. Return their request with an acknowledgment. It’s OK to say, “Sorry, not today,” or, “I don’t have any cash.”
Verni-Lau has worked for more than a year with Old Town’s homeless and transient populations. He told the editorial board that residents who want to help can also provide nutritional snacks or socks as an alternative to money. Both actions can fill immediate needs.
Another option, Verni-Lau said, is to donate to a nonprofit that you believe serves the population well. It can be hard to know how money will be spent when you give it to an individual, but numerous nonprofits tailor their missions to meet specific needs of the area’s long-term homeless population.
Giving to nonprofits might also appeal to those people who want to know their gift is supporting efforts that help people reach self-sustainability. Volunteering or being engaged in community conversations geared toward solutions is a further way to help, Verni-Lau said.
Poverty, while traditionally defined as having a lack of resources, is also about a lack of relationships that can provide support or access to those resources. That means giving is more effective when we give to organizations that develop relationships.
But doing whatever promotes a person’s dignity, even if it’s as small as a simple acknowledgment, is a constructive path. Greet someone with respect and, if you want to move from there, introduce yourself and get to know their name.
There’s no reason to believe that building relationships will make Fort Collins a more attractive place for panhandlers. But there is reason to believe that doing so will help those truly in need of help get off the streets.
We are all humans and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.