Understanding Your Local Problem
The information provided above is only a generalized description of panhandling. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
Asking the Right Questions
The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular panhandling problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.
Complainants and Donors
(Surveys of citizens and beat police officers will likely be necessary to gather information about complaints and complainants, as well as about donors. Most complaints about panhandling are not formally registered with police.)
- To what extent does panhandling bother or intimidate others? How many complaints do police receive?† Do a few people account for many complaints, or do many people complain? Are complaints filed with other organizations (business/neighborhood associations)?
- Who are the complainants? Merchants? Shoppers? Workers? Students?
- Does panhandling alter people's behavior and routines (e.g., do people avoid certain areas or stores)?
- What are the particular complaints? That panhandlers act aggressively, or that all panhandling is bothersome?
- What do complainants suggest should be done to control panhandling?
- What percentage of passersby give money to panhandlers?
- Why do people say they give money to panhandlers? What do they believe the panhandlers use the money for?
† Analyzing calls for service related to panhandling is important, but it can be time-consuming because, in many police agencies, such calls are classified under broad categories such as "disturbance" or "suspicious person," categories that encompass a wide range of behavior. It might be worthwhile to develop more-specific call categories, so future problem analysis will be easier.
(Surveys of suspected panhandlers, data from agencies that serve the needy, and discussions with beat police officers can help you answer the following questions. This information can help you determine whether there are clusters of panhandlers with similar characteristics. Different responses might be warranted for different types of panhandlers.)
- How many panhandlers are in the area? How many are regulars? How many are occasional?
- What is known about the regular panhandlers? What is their age, race, gender, family status, employment status, and employment history? Are they substance abusers? Do they suffer from mental illness? Do they have criminal records or a history of criminal victimization? Where do they live (in shelters, private homes, on the streets)?
- How many of the panhandlers are transient? How many are new to the area? How many are longtime residents?
- Do the panhandlers know about and use social services in the area (e.g., shelters, soup kitchens, job training, substance abuse treatment)?
- Where does panhandling commonly occur? In parks, plazas and squares? On sidewalks? Near ATMs? Near public transportation stops and stations?
- What, specifically, makes certain locations especially attractive or unattractive to panhandlers?
- When is panhandling most prevalent? Are there daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonal cycles to it?
- How has the panhandling problem previously been handled in your jurisdiction? How is it currently handled? Is the current response adequate and appropriate?
- What laws currently regulate panhandling? Are those laws adequate and/or constitutional?
- Do the police arrest panhandlers? If so, on what charges? How are the charges processed? Are panhandlers prosecuted? If so, what is the typical sentence?
- How do other criminal justice officials (prosecutors, judges, probation officers) view the panhandling problem?
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems.)
The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to panhandling:
- Number of complaints filed with police about panhandling
- Number of complaints filed with other organizations or people (e.g., neighborhood/business associations, elected officials) about panhandling
- Levels of concern expressed about panhandling (from surveys)
- Number of known chronic panhandlers (based on complaints, contacts and arrests)
- Costs of police response to panhandling complaints
- Evidence that panhandling has been displaced to other areas, or is resulting in an increase in other forms of nuisance behavior or crime (e.g., trash scavenging, shoplifting, theft from autos, purse snatchings, prostitution, drug dealing)†
- Indicators of the economic health of the area beset with panhandling (e.g., property vacancy rates, shoppers' presence, commerce levels, tax receipts, private-security expenditures).
† Lankenau (1999) asserts that most panhandlers will likely turn to other illegitimate ways to make money, rather than find regular employment or enter treatment programs. Duneier (1999) states that some panhandlers see crime as one of the few viable alternatives to panhandling.