From Spare Change to ‘Real Change’: New Initiative To Help Panhandlers

Posted at 7:56 PM, May 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-12 19:56:53-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., (May 12, 2014)– One day before a proposed panhandling ordinance will go before the City Commission, community leaders have unveiled a new initiative to help the people behind the problem.

Real Change Grand Rapids is a campaign being launched to educate the public about a “better way to give”. Organizers are asking people to donate to social services agencies and in special donation jars that will be placed around the area to create a “community fund”.

“We see this as a community issue that requires a community response,” said Kate O’Keefe, Program Director for the Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project. “This community fund helps people in need. Organizations like Degage, Mel Trotter, Heartside Ministry use this fund… If you give $1 dollar to one of the donation jars it can help buy someone a meal, $2 dollars gives someone a locker to keep their belongings in and keep them safe.”

O’Keefe said the campaign is meant to complement the proposed ordinance by providing education along with enforcement.

Panhandling has increased in West Michigan since 2012, when a federal judge ruled panhandling is protected as a First Amendment right. The ruling was upheld by an Appeals Court the following year.

“Therefore, no law can completely ban [panhandling], such a law would be unconstitutional,” explained Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish. “Once the Sixth Circuit issued its ruling, then the city was able to start looking at what the city could do with its own set of ordinances.”

The proposed panhandling ordinance, modeled after a similar ordinance in Kentwood, would restrict where and when panhandling can occur. Mish said the activity would not be allowed within 15 feet of an ATM or bus stop. It would also be prohibited on a public bus.

Mish added curbside panhandling, soliciting the driver or passenger in a vehicle on a public road, would also become a criminal misdemeanor.