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Philly: Don’t give cash to panhandlers, donate $5 via text instead

When the city looked at how cash on the street was used, they saw “the long tentacles of the opioid crisis.”

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Philly is dealing with a rise in people experiencing homelessness and an increase in panhandling. At a news conference today, officials said the growing heroin epidemic is to blame — and they’re asking residents to stop giving money on the street, and to donate via text message instead.

This morning, Mayor Jim Kenney and representatives from the Managing Director’s Office and the Office of Homeless Services introduced a pilot program they’re calling “The Text to Give Campaign.” Anybody will be able to donate $5 by sending a text message to the number 80077 and typing “Share.” The Office of Homeless Services will match each donation. Proceeds go to nonprofits that support housing, jobs and services for homeless.

Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services, and Kenney said Philadelphians should not be giving money directly to panhandlers because it would not solve the ultimate problems of people experiencing homelessness.

“The evidence we’ve seen,” Hersh said, “is the money is most likely going to be used for drugs.”

Hersh said the point in time homeless count conducted earlier this year was about 956 people who were unsheltered — higher than the past year, with most of the increase seen among opioid users in Kensington. The Office of Homeless Services has no exact count of panhandlers, but Hersh noted “it feels like there are more.”

Between last November and January, the Office of Homeless Services interviewed more than 100 panhandlers about their situation. They got responses mostly saying they would spend the money on drugs, food or a place to stay.

“We saw the long tentacles of the opioid crisis,” Hersh said.

The Office of Homeless Services has no set goal for how much money it hopes to raise through the campaign. The program begins immediately and will be re-evaluated in September.

It follows another effort at targeting panhandling last year. Then, the city tried to crack down on the activity by sending outreach workers to so-called hotspots throughout Center City. Several areas of downtown had been inundated by homeless because of the closure of LOVE Park.

Brian Abernathy, deputy managing director, said “The Text to Give Campaign” won’t be a silver bullet but one step in a larger campaign.

“Panhandling is a way to make a living,” he said. “If we want to disrupt that we need to disrupt the economics of that activity.”