City streets and sidewalks provide a public realm for all types of people to interact in various ways. While people go about daily activities, there are times when they may encounter someone in need. This could include being approached by someone on foot asking for money or seeing someone holding a sign along a busy roadway seeking money to help. Many people with warm hearts are willing to help, but how do they know their donations are making a difference? Through the recently created Municipal Service District (MSD), a group of civic leaders banded together to launch a new public education program called “Have a Heart - Give Smart.”
Unknown to many people, panhandling is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned. While it was referred to in one court ruling as, “the right to engage fellow human beings with the hope of receiving aid and compassion,” cities can put reasonable regulations on this activity, such as prohibiting aggressive or threatening language or actions.
There are two other important things to know about panhandling. First, panhandling and homelessness are two different things. Not all homeless people panhandle – and not all panhandlers are homeless. Second, social scientists studying panhandling have found that some use this as a way to fund drug or alcohol addictions. Giving money often helps to sustain, rather than prevent an addiction.
So, resolving panhandling is complicated. When the MSD was formed in Downtown Wilmington in 2017, finding a compassionate way to address panhandling was a high priority. Staff at Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) researched best practices from other cities and met with local agencies that are active in helping people in need. Thankfully, there are many agencies throughout the community dedicated to helping people who have fallen on hard times; however, most of these organizations are non-profits or church ministries that rely on donations and volunteers to operate successfully.
After many meetings with a variety of people and agencies to review campaigns from other cities, a consensus emerged around one from Seattle, Washington. With a positive call to action and a robust on-line presence, the program became a model for Wilmington. Building off this foundation, the MSD developed posters and brochures and created a web portal with information and links to other resources. This includes the “Street Sheet” that lists local agencies and the social services they provide along with a link to a recent documentary about panhandling in Wilmington.
The campaign also has multiple ways for people to donate if they want to help. People can make on-line donations directly from the site. The MSD also created a smartphone option: Just text the word “Heart” to 910.817.4301.
All contributions to the “Have a Heart – Give Smart” campaign will be donated to local agencies, less third party financial fees (such as credit card fees). Local agencies participating in the effort include the Salvation Army, Vigilant Hope, the United Way of the Cape Fear and the Rescue Mission of Cape Fear. Note that the MSD is also independently audited each year and that Downtown business and property owners are funding the entire campaign.
We believe this will be a win-win for everyone because it is a smart way to make a difference and help people less fortunate. It will also help add capacity to organizations already doing great work to help those in need. So, have a heart and give smart! Follow this link to see more.