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West-side campaign discourages giving to panhandlers 

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On the west side, people have long known that it's unwise to feed bears — they come back to rummage through your trash and scare your neighbors. Now, local groups and governments are tweaking the message a bit: Don't give to panhandlers.

Seem harsh?

Those organizing the campaign say it's not meant to be. They hope to encourage people to give to charitable organizations instead — a shift they say will better serve the poor, and force those with debilitating addictions to seek help.

"We want to maximize the donations that people give out to do the most good," says Organization of Westside Neighbors President Welling Clark.

OWN has joined with the Avenue Merchants Association, the city of Colorado Springs, the city of Manitou Springs, El Paso County and other organizations to promote the issue as the Avenue Task Force. All three government partners have property in the neglected area known as No Man's Land, west of 31st Street along Colorado Avenue.

Panhandling, and particularly very aggressive panhandling, has been a problem there for years. Though many sympathize with the beggars' plight, HOT Team Officer Brett Iverson has said in public meetings that most panhandlers in the area are not homeless. Some beg instead of seeking a job; others use it to supplement a government check, or to support bad habits.

"The ones that are homeless are not using it to get out of homelessness, they're just using it for drugs and alcohol," says Bob Holmes, executive director of the homeless umbrella agency Homeward Pikes Peak. "... People know that they're going to be able to panhandle and get all the drugs and booze that they want, and get a hot meal in the soup kitchen, and have a warm place to stay if it gets under 30 degrees. There's not a lot of incentive to change their lifestyle."

Longtime homeless advocate Steve Handen has a different view, noting that panhandlers use money for everything from laundry to booze. But, he notes, it's not something the giver can control. "I think in the Christian context, if you give a gift, give a gift," he says.

As for the campaign, he says he's simply glad that it puts "the burden on the rich and not the poor," as opposed to laws that restrict panhandlers.

The campaign is starting out small, with posters inside stores and fliers in grocery bags. The poster notes that $5 given to the guy on the corner could turn into a $2,970 bill for taxpayers — if the panhandler uses the money to get drunk or high, then gets shipped away in an ambulance.

The fliers encourage gifts to charity, and some include a list of relevant organizations. Clark says his hope is that panhandlers will move on and seek help from charities, which might have more cash thanks to the campaign. He emphasizes that the campaign is one leg of a larger plan, which has also included stepped-up law enforcement and outreach.

Other cities, from Anchorage to Atlanta to Denver, have tried similar approaches. Denver's Road Home, a campaign to end homelessness, runs an "education campaign" as part of a comprehensive plan. It's also made huge steps in other areas, including helping pass new laws, adding 2,653 new housing units, and sending outreach workers to comb the streets.

Denver's Road Home contends that the mix of approaches has reduced panhandling on the 16th Street Mall by 92 percent since 2005.

stanley@csindy.com

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