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.
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 significantly 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.”