The city of Santa Fe installed signs Tuesday at 10 busy intersections beggars frequent, urging motorists not to hand money to panhandlers but to give it to social services organizations instead.
“Say no to panhandling,” the signs say. “Give to local charities.”
The city in a news release said it is using an approach “that has proven successful in cities across the country that are grappling with issues of panhandling and homelessness.”
According to the news release, the initiative “is part of a larger approach to steer people in need to the appropriate services,” adding the city is establishing a fund to help indigent people who are struggling with housing, transportation, food insecurity and other issues.
The installation of the signs under a pilot program comes amid what appears to be a spike in panhandling in Santa Fe in recent years and more than a year after enforcement of the city’s controversial panhandling ordinance was suspended. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called the city’s ordinance, which the City Council enacted in 2010, “legally indefensible” and a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.
“One of the things we know is that similar ordinances have run afoul of free speech, the protected free speech under the First Amendment,” city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said.
But Chacon said the signs installed by the city are different than the anti-panhandling ordinance that is no longer being enforced.
“We are not trying to outlaw panhandling,” she said. “We are trying to change the behavior of the giver.”
Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, questioned whether the city’s signs will serve their intended purpose.
“The city feels like it has to respond in some way, and I guess that’s what they decided on, but I don’t know that it’s really going to stop panhandling,” he said. “I think that people panhandle because they need money, and that’s the only way they know to get it, so I think people will still panhandle.”
And some people, Hughes said, will still roll down their windows at traffic lights and give panhandlers money, food, socks or other items.
“I don’t always give to panhandlers, but sometimes if people seem really desperate, I do,” Hughes said. “I mean, I think most of us are kindhearted and want to help. ... The trouble is that it’s really hard to tell who is really in need and who is just really good at acting like they’re in need.”
Some Santa Feans complain panhandling has gotten out of control in the city and that panhandlers are growing increasingly aggressive.
“There is a man with a sign on the corner of Cerrillos and St. Francis today yelling obscenities and throwing rocks at people who don’t give him money,” a woman posted recently on the Santa Fe Bulletin Board Facebook page.
News of the city installing signs encouraging motorists to give money to local charities instead of to panhandlers generated mixed reactions online.
“Local [charities] are more equipped and can better screen the overall needs of these homeless people,” Johnny James Gabaldon wrote. “This is a great idea.”
Others, however, said they would ignore the signs.
“I will give to panhandlers and to charity,” Elaine Fattah wrote. “Don’t tell me where to give!”
Joseph Gonzales echoed a similar sentiment.
“I will continue to give change, hot dogs and burritos, too,” Gonzales wrote. “I seem to get it back in a roundabout way big time. Lord forbid you or anyone you love be in a similar situation one day. It is easier to be nice.”
The rollout of the signs also comes as the administration of Mayor Alan Webber pursues a national program designed to end chronic and veteran homelessness in Santa Fe. The Built for Zero program brings together different organizations already working to address homelessness, creating more alignment among those groups, and tailors a solution around the specific needs and circumstances of each individual.
But the city noted not all panhandlers are homeless.
Hughes said his staff interviewed panhandlers in Santa Fe, many of whom said they had fallen on tough times.
“It seemed like the people who were panhandling really were in some dire circumstances where they needed money to either keep from being homeless or to try to get out of being homeless,” he said. “I just think it’s kind of a sad commentary on our society that we have people who are so poor that they have to beg for money just to get by.”
The city acknowledged panhandling on public property is not illegal and said it respects free speech. But giving to charities instead of individuals creates long-term solutions by connecting people who are truly in need to the appropriate services and resources, the city said.
“Donations of time or money to local charities can go further and have a greater, longer-lasting impact on the homeless and needy than a single handout,” the city said. “We hope individuals can find a personal connection to our needy population working through local agencies and service providers.”
In addition to two signs at Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive, the city installed signs at the following intersections: North Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta; Paseo de Peralta and St. Francis; St. Francis and Cordova Road (two signs); Cerrillos and Rodeo Road; Cerrillos and Zafarano Drive; Cerrillos and Airport Road; and St. Michael’s Drive and Old Pecos Trail.
While the signs installed Tuesday don’t list specific charities, the city said The Life Link, The Food Depot, Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place and St. Elizabeth Shelter and Supportive Housing are among the local organizations helping people in need.