A panhandler in the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue downtown asks a pedestrian for money.

If you shop at Target, you are a target.

If you go to Bennison’s, someone will ask you for bread.

And if you come out of Whole Foods, you’ll probably be asked, if not for a whole dollar, at least for some spare change.

Panhandlers. It’s hard to avoid them in downtown Evanston, and some other places nearby.

And as one 4th Ward resident put it Tuesday night, those panhandlers “have one mission. They want our money.”

The resident was tired of it. Others at the 4th Ward meeting at Robert Crown Center were fed up as well, particularly one man who said he was “assaulted by an aggressive panhandler” earlier this year.

But while it’s easy to complain about panhandlers, figuring out what to do about them, or perhaps for them, is not so simple.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) told the 25 attendees that the question is definitely a city hall priority.

(L to R): Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma, Ofcr. Michael Jones, Acting Chief Richard Eddington.

But you can’t just lock people up for begging.

Panhandling is legal in Illinois. Aggressive panhandling, however, in Evanston, is not.

Aggressive panhandling is defined several ways, including asking for money near an ATM, repeatedly asking after being told no, or blocking someone’s path.

But Evanston’s signifcantly under-staffed police department cannot afford to spend too much time dealing with panhandlers when other potentially more violent or dangerous incidents need response.

Officer Michael Jones told the meeting that Evanston’s panhandling ordinance is weak, with no consequences for those who are cited.

“A lot of times we write compliance tickets and they rip them up in our faces,” Jones stated.

The veteran officer also said that panhandling has increased lately, in part due to Evanston’s reputation for helping those in need, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The past three years feels different,” Jones said, and not better.

“I’ve stopped people from Atlanta who’ve taken the bus up here because they heard Evanston is giving away money,” Jones added.

Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections for the Homeless, disagreed that Evanston is a destination for out-of-towners seeking handouts.

Bogg said 86% of those staying at the Margarita Inn homeless facility are connected to Evanston, either from growing up here, attending school, working or having lived in town — although any of those things could have happened some time in the past, not necessarily right now.

However, Bogg agreed with the residents and the police that panhandling has gotten worse since COVID, and said there is a direct relationship.

Losing a home, or a job, getting evicted, getting depressed — each alone, or added together, Bogg said, could increase homelessness, and therefore increase panhandling.

A representative of Albany Care, a residential psychiatric treatment faciity at Main and Maple, acknowledged that some people staying there are begging on the streets.

However, Jacque Marquis said his agency is working with those residents to get them to stop.

“We had seven repeat offender panhandlers” staying at Albany Care, Marquis noted. But after coming up with social service support for those clients, Marquis added, “we’re now down to two.”

The recent expansion of an unrelated program, the Trilogy mental health crisis team, to mobile response 24/7, is another potential way to help.

While not dealing directly with panhandlng, getting help for those in crisis might, in theory, mean fewer people asking for cash.

The city may also try yet another approach as well, adding what’s called a “Clean Team.” These “street ambassadors,” Nieuwsma said, would deal with issues such as graffiti and litter.

It’s not panhandling enforcement, but backers say it is a way to keep the city cleaner and more welcoming.

Down the road, if money is available, Nieuwsma said he’d like to expand the program to add social services professionals to the ambassadors team.

But there does not appear to be any easy solution. And the longer it takes to find one, the more people may simply stop going to stores where they are asked for money on the way in, the way out, or both.

“I’m afraid,” said one resident, “to go to Target now.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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18 Comments

  1. “Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections for the Homeless, disagreed that Evanston is a destination for out-of-towners seeking handouts….” Having once been homeless, and having worked in homeless services in both Chicago and Evanston, this is in my opinion simply not true. Chicagoans come up here, knowing that as a nice liberal college town, Evanston is “easy pickings” for panhandling, and that just generally hanging out in Evanston is “easier” than in Chicago (and easy to get to via the L), because Evanston apparently bends over backwards to “enable” their disruptive behaviors – as Officer Jones confirmed. I live on Grove Street (for seven years now), right around the corner from the Margarita Inn (run by Connections for the Homeless), and there has been a definite uptick in panhandling, “aggressive” behaviors, etc. in the area since the Margarita began operating as a shelter early in 2020. I don’t have any real hope that anything concrete will be done about the panhandling issue; more than likely “committees will be formed”, there will be more “listening sessions”, etc. – and the problem will just get worse. I’ll also stress that that the *vast* majority of homeless are not panhandlers (they’ve fallen on hard times and are seeking a better life as best they can…), but that the vast majority of panhandlers *are* homeless (and most all have substance abuse issues, thus needing monies for their habit), and they are quite proficient in their grifting ways. I moved to Evanston to escape the increasing “street chaos” of Chicago, but the chaos is now in Evanston, and it has become a “quality of life issue” for many of us impacted by panhandling. And no, I’m not some “Old Guard Evanston” rich guy, I’m a senior and I make a modest income in a social services career (which I love) and I am a renter. I’m just a normal guy that would like to sit in Fountain Square or go to Target or visit Bennison’s or the Post Office and not have to be constantly hassled for money, insulted, spat at, etc. Thank you for listening!

      1. Connections is *not* winning any friends/supporters in the immediate neighborhood of the Margarita Inn by such statements as the below (from a July ‘Evanston Now’ article about an incident; link included): “When we have ownership and full operational control of the Margarita…”. 1) Connections arrogantly assumes that their ownership of the facility is a “done deal”; 2) in a dense residential neighborhood they should realize that they are *guests* here – and thus are obligated to adhere to a *robust* “Good Neighbor Agreement”, with a responsibility to the community to abide by reasonable “community standards” for the safety of the Margarita Inn guests, staff, and the surrounding community….

        https://evanstonnow.com/margarita-resident-charged-with-punching-cop/

        Margarita resident charged with punching cop by Bill Smith/July 9, 2022

        […] “Update 7/10/22: Connections Executive Director Betty Bogg, in an email to Evanston Now, said Jacob Pure is the son of Margarita Inn owner Michael Pure, not a Connections employee. “Incidents are supposed to be handled by Connections employees who are trained to handle this sort of situation,” Bogg said. “If Jacob had followed procedures, this could very well have been avoided.” “Regardless, the resident violated our guidelines and has been discharged from the Margarita Inn,” she said, adding “When we have ownership and full operational control of the Margarita, incidents like this will only be handled by our trained staff…”

    1. GM I agree. I’ve been to Ald. Nieuwsma meetings where residents have talked about panhandlers aggressively and inappropriately targeting girls from Nichols middle school and high school students being used to deliver drugs to parked cars and still there will be people that side with the panhandlers and drug user/dealers! They have it in their mind the panhandlers are just innocent, hapless victims. If you’re more worried about the supposed victimization of these people over the actual victimization of children, I don’t know what to say.

      1. Not disputing or disagreeing with your points. This is clearly an issue that needs addressing but just keep in mind that often times substance abuse is a coping mechanism and is often a product of self medication to make other issues or make them more bearable.

  2. I live immediately next to the Margarita Inn at 1570 Oak Avenue. My apartment looks directly into the units in the building.

    There are individuals who I unfortunately have to watch every night through my window drink straight from bottles of hard alcohol, go beg in front of the stores, wake me up from Midnight to 5AM on a weekly basis. Regardless of mental illness, this has become a way of life for them.

    I have been physically assaulted numerous times by the same individual who stands in front of Target with his girlfriend. Evanston is doing it to themselves. Individuals who don’t live downtown think they’re being good people by supporting Connections and various Hand Out organizations. I’m certain they would have a different feeling about this if they had to live next this stuff and experience it on a daily basis.

    1. Alcohol use by Margarita Inn residents is allowed per the CFTH “Shelter Participant Handbook”. A copy of this is a public record (as presented to the Evanston Land Use Commission meeting on 05/11/2022), and the complete Handbook (along with the accompanying meeting record) can be found on pp. 103 – 149 at this link below (PDF):

      https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/71641/637879553158200000

      City of Evanston – LAND USE COMMISSION – Wednesday, May 11, 2022

      CONNECTIONS FOR THE HOMELESS – SHELTER PARTICIPANT HANDBOOK
      Revised 01.15.2022

      H. ALCOHOL + OTHER SUBSTANCES [PG 7]

      “Alcohol is allowed in the Shelter but may only be consumed in your room. At no time is open alcohol permitted in any common area, including the hallways, Courtyard, or anywhere outside on the shelter property. Non-prescription substances that are illicit/illegal are not allowed anywhere in the Shelter, including in individual rooms, or on the property…”

  3. Meanwhile, the woke Mayor is probably about to send an email out of his virtue signaling need and make zero proposals to address this issue.

    1. Media is hearing more about the Evanston civic devolution from woke extremism. Recently, when we told Dan Biss that the street disorder (including panhandling) is out of control and needs to be a priority, he told us that he doesn’t really hear that complaint. He actually told us “you are in the minority!” He lives in Ward 6, so he may not understand that Wards 1 and 4 are included in our city boundaries and suffering greatly.

      The bad actors on our streets are rarely actually homeless. They get free food, dining service and dishwashing, shelter, endless free clothing, laundry, free social work, free medical care. One of the guys who hangs out at the BBQ place on Clark comes from his home in Waukegan because Evanston is prime pickings – he gets more money for his time here than anyone in Waukegan or Chicago would tolerate. None want to work, despite employers pleading for help and welcoming people with criminal records. Evanston’s detailed 1990’s market research analysis on pandhandling revealed 81% had a criminal record. Today, it’s more like 100%. They are the personification of “idle minds, idle hands are the seeds to mischief and crime.”

      But, Dan Biss just doesn’t see any problems when he walks out of his home in Ward 6, runs for panhandler-free morning coffee at Central Street Starbucks, picks up lunch at FoodStuffs without tripping over a pile of clothes, food trash and milk crates, then runs to Green Bay Road Jewel for groceries, straight through a clean, vagrant-free entrance. Later in the day, dinner downtown Wilmette is a pleasure – so many people comfortably walking with their families, in sidewalk cafes chatting with neighbors.

  4. The jewel food store at 1128 Chicago Ave. is the worst spot for aggresive panhandling. I go to the store 2 or 3 times a week and there’s as many as 4 beggers out there every time. They get mean or very nasty if you don’t give them Money!

    1. Yeah, you often have to walk by multiple panhandlers to get into Jewel on Chicago Ave and many of them have migrated to Trader Joe’s across the street also. I complained to the corporate folks for Jewel some time ago about the panhandlers at that location and was told there’s nothing they can do unless a crime is committed. It’s a shame and I believe the excessive panhandling is hurtful to those businesses because it drives customers away.

    2. I live near Jewel I do not feel safe in the parking lot at night. It’s beyond ‘asking for money’, it’s aggressive behavior that sometimes includes name calling & yelling. Yes of course this is also about addiction, housing, feeling marginalized, etc. But at the same time it’s about a tax paying citizen trying to buy milk after dark and not being able to.

  5. I don’t live in Evanston, but I often shop there. And have definitely noticed an increase in the homeless population on the street. Usually without incident.

    Last time around however, a panhandler started yelling at me and following me down the street when I didn’t notice him initially (was looking at my phone to find an address).

    As someone who regularly gives to any Streetwise vendor, donates to the Greater Chicago Foodbank and wishes more could be done to help the homeless, I’m not ashamed to say that aggressive panhandling will definitely result in me going elsewhere on errand day. I just want to conduct business without feeling threatened.

  6. When the economy was tough, I got it. I also know there are mental health issues in some cases. However, I also know my company, and many others are offering entry level jobs at $15-23/hr, and can’t find people. We even found housing for one we just hired.. There is no excuse. So I am sorry, I don’t give them a dime.

  7. I agree with so many comments above… i.e., however sympathetic we wish to be, and acknowledging whatever Covid has done to exacerbate need, as a nearly 39 year homeowner of Evanston I go shopping in Wilmette, Skokie, Northbrook and Glenview for most of what I want or need. No panhandlers. It has become a really dark and depressing aspect of life in Evanston to be approached at the entrances of so many places.

    Most of my adult life I have had little ziplock bags with money and a granola bar handy for those “in need”. But after all these years I have wondered where our elected people are in helping us maintain some standard in our neighborhoods and in the heart of out town. Officer Jones in particular seems right on in saying we have a very weak policy/approach to this issue. This morning I resisted the urge to go to the Greenbay Road Whole Foods for a few items I needed to entertain friends in my garden. The Jewel on Chicago was just blocks away. I avoid that store because of aggressive panhandlers. But I went at 8:00 a.m and yup, already a person was there. He approached me as I entered and left and was clearly either drunk or on some other substance. 8:00 a.m.

    A good friend has repeatedly told me to just wise up… quit feeling you have to even acknowledge these people. But it simply made me want to continue to do my shopping elsewhere. Is this good for Evanston’s economy? We want badly to be kind to others, but also worry we are not really helping these folks… or our town’s businesses… by not speaking up. Is there an answer?

  8. Seems that there is another aspect to the greatly increased number of panhandlers, crime and trash. Subscribe to the Evanston Police Report, honestly don’t know how the Walgreen’s on 600 Chicago Ave. can endure the ramped theft. I too have taken to doing most of my shopping outside of Evanston. I fall on the other side of not wanting to be sworn at, spit at, followed ….. Not intimidated, don’t want to be the one that ends up in jail. I am just collectively over all of it. I will leave this town heartbroken and angry. I do find some small comfort in seeing my fellow Evanstoniens feeling the same pain.Would be wonderful if our elected officials could move beyond topless equality and focus on life quality of all Evanston residents.

  9. Recently, Evanston put signs up throughout downtown which discourage panhandling and suggest giving to certain organizations. Those signs do little to nothing to discourage panhandling; in fact, some of them have been spray-painted over.

    After working and socializing in Evanston for over 20 years, I can definitely say that the panhandlers have gotten FAR more aggressive in the past several years. I’ve had people tell me that if they drive to a store they plan to frequent, and see that there’s pandhandlers out front, that they’ll *drive to another town* and spend their money there, rather than spending money in their local stores! So Evanston is losing business/money, because people don’t want to deal with the panhandlers.

    The people who work in the stores where there are frequent panhandling issues have to deal with it constantly as well, wasting their time. Evanston police have to go out and break up fights among the panhandlers, which certainly can’t be the best use of their time, and costs the taxpayers money.

    The panhandlers out in front of the Jewel and Trader Joe’s on Chicago Ave are THE SAME PEOPLE, and have been the same people, FOR YEARS. (Minus about 18 months during the early part of the pandemic. What a pleasant break that was!) A few of them clearly are in need of some kind of social services interventions (detox), but that is not the case of all of them. For them, panhandling *IS* their “job”, because Evanstonians are generous to them – VERY generous – so they get everything they need (cash, food) for free/without paying taxes, while still being able to take advantage of social programs because they don’t have an official “income”.

    Evanston needs to get aggressive about making it difficult for people to panhandle around banks and grocery stores; people should be able to do the most basic of daily functions without being hounded every time they go shopping. Ban panhandling in a radius of at least 50 to 100 feet around the entrances of banks and grocery stores (including convenience stores); this would cover the general area in front of these prime panhandling spots and chunks of their parking lots as well.

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