City tries to curb aggressive panhandlers with sign campaign

ARLINGTON, Wash. - The city of Arlington is taking a novel approach to try and stop panhandlers from intimidating people. It's asking generous citizens with spare change to ignore the beggars and give, instead, to local charities.

"The signs are a way to encourage folks who want to give in a positive way that can make a real difference," says City of Arlington spokeswoman Kristin Banfield. "The most important thing we're focusing on is those that truly want and need help."

The city calls its sign campaign "Keep The Spare Change." City crews are installing the metal signs along busy roadsides and at intersections where aggressive panhandlers have generated complaints.

"We think it can discourage the panhandlers who make people feel unsafe, while ensuring that donations from the public get to charities that truly help the homeless," Banfield says.

The signs have a graphic of a circle with a slash, superimposed over a hand dropping some coins. The signs say "Don't support panhandling, give to a local charity."

Arlington got the idea after the nearby city of Marysville launched the campaign late last summer.

It is perfectly legal to hand money to people with signs on the side of the road, but city officials hope people will donate to groups like The Salvation Army and other local organizations that help the poor and the homeless.

"You know, I'm just, trying to make ends meet," says a local panhandler sitting with a cardboard sign at an Arlington intersection.

He does not want to reveal his name, but agreed to talk about the signs. He was panhandling about 30 feet from one of them.

"I guess it's been there for about a week now, and I've still got people helping me out," he says.

The 60-year-old disabled man says he understands why the city launched the "Keep The Spare Change" campaign. He sees panhandlers who are very aggressive and says many are drug addicts just trying to raise money for a fix.

"They're doing it to buy drugs - heroin, meth, you know," he says. "But there's also some people out here doing it like me that don't do drugs and are just trying to get by."

Banfield says she talked to one panhandler who claims he was earning up to $300 a day. Since the signs went up, his take plummeted to just $2.

City officials understand charities do not reach some needy or homeless people, but believe the new campaign is the best way to help the greatest number of people.

The city charges $25 to install a metal sign on the property of any business. Merchants can also get small window decals.