Peoria leaders discuss rise in panhandling

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The significant rise in panhandling this year is an issue leaving many in the city of Peoria scratching their heads as to the cause and the possible solution.

Peorians said the sight of people standing on the street, holding cardboard signs, and asking for money has become more common.

The matter is generating noise on public crossways, street corners, road median strips, and most recently inside Peoria City Council chambers.

During Tuesday night’s council meeting, city leaders engaged in a lengthy discussion on the topic.

“I have never seen so many people standing on the medians and the street corners than I have over the past year,” Denise Jackson, First District Councilwoman, said. “I would hope that we as a council would look a little bit deeper as to why this is occurring within our community.”

“It just seems like it’s just exploded, and we’re seeing this in intersections and not just on the street corners and the parking lots like it had been, so there is clearly something taking place,” Tim Riggenbach, Third District Councilman, said.

Riggenbach mentioned reaching out to the Jolt Harm Reduction Center to find out what could be causing the surge.

Chris Schaffner, the program director at Jolt Harm Reduction, said the matter may be a result of the pandemic colliding with what he calls “systemic failures” affecting people’s livelihoods.

“There’s this continuing gap between wages being paid, particularly for people with lower income potential, and then the cost of living and increasing rent,” Schaffner said. “We do not have enough affordable, accessible housing that’s adequate for folks and families.”

Schaffner said there’s a myth that panhandling can be reduced to people just being lazy. He said issues such as low job wages, inadequate housing, poor healthcare, possible felonies, illnesses, substance abuse, and lack of trade skills can contribute to the problem.

“When people are trying to address their survival needs, people get desperate when there are not enough resources available for them,” Schaffner said.

He said everybody’s story is different and said there are some people who panhandle who aren’t homeless, but he said the majority of panhandlers shouldn’t be stigmatized as scammers.

“Probably the biggest misconception is that everybody out there is trying to hustle everyone, and the reality is most people who are given money on the streets usually buy food with it,” Schaffner said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, city leaders didn’t focus much on where the money is going, but rather how much of a safety concern it is to have people standing in the street, especially in high traffic areas.

Since the act of panhandling is legal, they mentioned the possibility of amending one of the city’s ordinances to prohibit people from obstructing traffic, which would not only apply to panhandlers but also to people performing charitable fundraisers in the street.

“From my standpoint, we shouldn’t be doing any of this in the public right of ways and intersections, the charities as well can find more reasonable places to do this,” Zach Oyler, At-large councilman, said. “It’s concerned me for a long time.”

“We want the police department to get people the hell out of the streets who don’t belong there for their own good as well as for the motorists who are trying to drive away home safely,” Chuck Grayeb, Second District Councilman said. “I’m happy to talk about the sociology of it.”

Mayor Rita Ali also mentioned Peorians continue to give money to panhandlers because they’re a part of a “generous, caring community” that always tries to help out.

The council didn’t take any official action on the matter Tuesday, but Grayeb said they’ll continue to look into the safety concerns.

Schaffner said he recognizes panhandling poses safety hazards, but said the issue still goes deeper.

“If we don’t take an honest stock at how our most impoverished folks are living, then we can’t adequately solve these problems,” Schaffner said.

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