When convention visitors are asked to rate downtown Indianapolis, Chris Gahl of Visit Indy says three words come to mind.
“Safe. Walkable. Clean.”
Some observers say a fourth word could be added to that descriptive list: panhandlers.
“I would say that panhandling is a top priority for the city as a whole,” said Gahl. “We know we’re sitting on research that shows panhandling, in a visitor’s mind, equal an unsafe atmosphere.”
Indianapolis leaders have visited other cities to see how they handle their panhandling issue. IMPD has considered a policy to station officers next to panhandlers to convince donors not to give them money.
Metro officers say by targeting specific chronic aggressive panhandlers, they reduced the number of panhandling arrests downtown from 127 in 2011 to 54 in 2012.
“From working plain clothes at a lot of events the aggressive panhandlers seemed to decrease,” said Sgt. Bob HIpple. “The number of individuals possibly soliciting with a cup has increased.”
Panhandling downtown is legal if the solicitor is passive and not blocking a sidewalk.
Stalking pedestrians for money is illegal.
Hipple and the Community Outreach Task Force, made up of mental health specialists, prosecutors and social workers, has succeeded in convincing eleven of the city’s most aggressive panhandlers to become clean and sober and stay off the street.
“(Three of them) accounted in three years for over 300 arrests,” said Hipple. “There are 51 people in the program. They’ve all entered at different times. Of those 51 there’s a 28% reduction in contacts with public safety.”
Hipple said IMPD will dust off an old strategy to ban the most aggressive panhandlers from downtown after they’re arrested.
“Part of the plea agreement that the prosecutor will provide them is that they stay six blocks and six months away from the area where they were arrested for panhandling. In essence, I have removed them from where they can make money.”
Even other panhandlers are offended by the more aggressive solicitors who discourage donors.
“I just sit on my corner and let them read my sign,” said Fred Strader who sits at the intersection of Illinois and Maryland Streets. “They read my sign and help me out but walking up to them and harassing panhandling and then when they walk past me and they look at me they just keep walking past me.”