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Our view: Auburn’s panhandlers need something beyond cash handouts

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The cardboard signs. The requests for spare change. We’ve all encountered panhandling in Auburn. Auburn Police Chief Valerie Harris plans to pitch a new ordinance to the city council that could curtail panhandling within the city limits. While the problem is real, an ordinance would merely treat the symptom. It would not provide the cure to a problem that plagues our community. The city council should approve the ordinance to give law enforcement another tool to combat aggressive panhandlers, but it should also mount a public awareness campaign to discourage citizens from handing out change. “If they don’t get money, they’re not going to stand on the corner,” said Suzi deFosset, executive director of The Gathering Inn, an organization that shelters the homeless inside Placer County churches. DeFosset and other homeless advocates agree — giving money to panhandlers allows them to continue seeking handouts instead of finding a solution to their problems. For instance, the bills you fork over may not be spent on a sandwich. Money given to panhandlers could go to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Auburn Police say they’ve seen panhandlers use their donations to buy booze. “What people need to know is when they give money, even though it gives them a clean conscience, it doesn’t go to where they think it goes,” deFosset said. “A majority (of panhandlers) are doing what is a more critical need — to feed an addiction rather than feeding themselves.” DeFosset instead recommends that people give business cards to service organizations such as The Gathering Inn or the Salvation Army or restaurant gift cards. In an economic climate where many are losing jobs, face towering medical bills and are struggling to pay their mortgages, an uptick in the number of needy residents is expected. The ability to stand on a street corner with a sign asking for help is a basic freedom of expression. But handing the man behind the cardboard sign $5 isn’t going to fix his situation. Issuing him a fine or mandating a court appearance isn’t going to help, either. Auburn needs a wide-reaching campaign to educate the public to share information with panhandlers and homeless about where they should be getting help — the network of food closets and nonprofits that serve the needy in our community. If you want to give to the homeless, give to nonprofit groups that serve the poor. Don’t give to a panhandler, who may not necessarily be homeless. Many panhandlers lack employment, but are able to support themselves by begging. The timing is right to address panhandling. With the city’s new plaza at Lincoln Way and High Street planned for completion at the end of the year, an aggressive stance on panhandling could prevent the area from being a gold mine for vagrants. Aggressive panhandlers confronting those strolling on Auburn streets and asking for money will turn away tourists and shoppers. Shoppers feel intimidated to enter a store if someone’s loitering out front. But the last thing we need is to spend more taxpayers’ money arresting, incarcerating and prosecuting non-violent indigents. “You’re asking people who abide by the law to put together a law for people who don’t abide by the law, so I can’t tell you whether (an ordinance) will stop panhandling,” deFosset said. We agree. That’s why the solution should come from citizens. Instead of reaching into their pockets for coins, they should help homeless panhandlers find true change, through available community resources.