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Panhandle With Care

We're all just a home away from homeless.

Denver is in year three of Denver's Road Home, a ten-year project to end homelessness in this city; according to the most recent count, there are now 4,400 homeless people on any given night in Denver, and 10,000 in the metro area overall -- a number that's shrunk from previous counts.

How many of those homeless panhandle? A Road Home survey found that over 40 percent of the people living in shelters are working, and only 10 percent of those surveyed ever panhandle. In the first nine months of 2006, the Denver Police Department made 215 arrests for begging. Eighty-two of those arrests, or more than a third, were made on or near the 16th Street Mall. But that figure is down from 2005, when 104 people were arrested around the mall during the same time period.

Last year, Denver City Council passed ordinances making it illegal to sit or lie in a downtown right-of-way from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., to panhandle within twenty feet of a sidewalk eatery, or to enter any traffic lane in order to beg. Still, panhandling and the homeless are viewed as Denver's number-one problem by out-of-towners checking out the Queen City of the Plains.

"Generally, Denver receives outstanding reviews from outside visitors across the board," says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The one area where we do see negative comments is regarding the amount of homeless people along the 16th Street Mall. It's discouraging, because once a city gets that reputation, it can take a long time to overcome. We have been making some real improvements, but because the 16th Street Mall is situated how it is, there can be six people out panhandling on a given day, and the average tourist is going to be hit up along that mall by all six. It gives them the wrong perception, but for the average visitor, perception is reality."

The Downtown Denver Partnership has been studying how to deal with both the perception and the reality. It's important to note that there's a difference between being homeless and panhandling, the Partnership's Sarah McClean points out. That's why the city is tackling the situation on two fronts. First, it's dealing with the reality of homelessness by working to get those people off the streets, providing the services needed to get their lives back on track. And second, it's encouraging residents to discourage panhandlers -- which, in turn, would remove the perception.

And that means not giving money to the sign-flyers dotting the city's intersections. When the Partnership did its own survey, it found that Denverites donate $4.5 million a year to panhandlers.

"We don't want people to stop giving completely," McClean says. "We just want them to give to shelters and places where ultimately they will have some sort of guarantee where that money will be used."

"Denver's a really generous city," says Jamie Van Leeuwan, project manager of Denver's Road Home. "We want to educate people that there are better ways to help the homeless."

"We generally support giving to organizations that are going to provide resources," adds Doug Wayland, director of education and advocacy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "But the community should conscientiously try to have alternatives for them as well. And in some cases with panhandlers, it's a judgment call. If you want to give them money, that's your call."

It's a call that I hope Denver makes.

At 1 p.m. the day after my Castle Rock experience, I'm on the infamous 16th Street Mall, the place those suburb-dwellers fear so much. I've heard of you, you vile, wretched street. And just what, exactly, is the point of your Hard Rock Cafe?

I set up shop in between Stout and California, directly outside an H&R Block in case I am seized by a sudden, insatiable urge to do my taxes, eschewing my homeless ways once and for all. I start out with "Anything Helps" and watch the passersby pass by. It's a whole different ball game ignoring someone without the protection of a motor vehicle. In a pedestrian-walkway situation, people are way more susceptible to your panhandler advances. Everyone takes note of my sign, everyone looks at me in my dire situation; it's impossible not to. But still, nobody gives me any money. I suppose I could mutter the stereotypical "Spare some change?" line, using a 1940s detective voice just to amuse myself -- but I'm a respectful panhandler. I speak when spoken to and otherwise let my sign do the talking.

Another homeless man walks up, looks at me briefly, quizzically, then dives headfirst into a trash can. Finding nothing, he emerges from the sea of refuse and passes me by again, this time giving me the evil eye. Something in his glare reveals that he is a few cans short of a shopping cart. When someone in your immediate vicinity is crazy, you keep an eye on him. I watch as he hovers around California for a minute, then turns and walks by me once again, with a fresh evil eye. Then he stops, turns.

In several impressive leaps, the man is suddenly in my face, screaming unintelligibly at top volume. His tirade is a string of nonsensical transient babble, punctuated by the repeated usage of the one phrase I can decipher: "hound dog." Hound dog, hound dog, hound dog! I step away from Hound Dog, but he persists, absolutely livid. Perhaps this is his turf; perhaps this is his imaginary friend Hound Dog's turf. Whatever, I have clearly transgressed. I try to come up with some sort of apology, but Hound Dog is having none of it and continues barking. Terrified, I sprint away down the 16th Street Mall, much to the disappointment of the gathering crowd that is hoping to see a real bum-fight.

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