Panhandling study puts mental health, homelessness in focus
As a long-standing resident of Central Florida, I am committed to helping make it the best place possible to raise a family and to own and operate a business.
I, like most local business leaders, see the impact of panhandling every day, especially in downtown. That is why I volunteer with Rethinking Homelessness, a local organization, and helped sponsor the recent study on panhandling in Orlando.
It is a first-of-its-kind deep dive into this complex and many times controversial issue that seems to seldom have solutions that work… or so it seemed before the data report. I will admit that I was skeptical about what we would find.
This project began as a search for answers. Who are the people in our community that are living on the streets and why are they there? What percentage of them are panhandling and why? Are economic conditions the primary cause of this epidemic or is there more to this issue than that?
What we found through careful research was both shocking and enlightening, and could give us the insights we need to finally work toward solutions.
To begin with, the panhandling study tells us that our common perceptions of Orlando panhandlers are quite different than what the data says. For instance, we learned in the study that most panhandlers are chronically homeless. This dismantles our idea of the “professional panhandler,” someone we have come to think of as pretending to be homeless or in great need, to solicit their income on the streets.
The image of someone driving their car into downtown, lazily making money and then going back home was completely dispelled in the report.
We also got new mental health contexts of the severe needs of this group of chronic panhandlers. They have, almost without exception, moderate to severe mental illnesses or physical disabilities that push them onto our streets.
And yes, the money we hand them every day is almost exclusively being used to buy drugs and alcohol. While we didn’t really need a detailed report to tell us that, what we did learn is that these individuals’ mental illnesses makes their addictions clinical in nature.
Most of us probably assumed that was how our money was being used, but understanding their disabilities and diseases help me see how compassion should always drive us to help…even if we don’t like the drug and alcohol abuse that’s occurring. We probably shouldn’t give these individuals cash, but they don’t deserve our scorn and judgment in exchange.
Now, the question is what can Central Florida do to help those people get off the streets and, in turn, curb panhandling in downtown? How do we improve their quality of life while simultaneously improving the quality of life for those of us who are impacted by their daily routine? This study points us toward long-term solutions that have real potential to be effective.
As the study tells us, the chronically homeless are wrestling with debilitating illnesses and permanent physical disabilities. We need long-term solutions to address their needs and to effectively help them get off the streets.
The good news is that our city leaders, even if we don’t want to give them credit, actually have a good track record on the issue of homelesness. We need to encourage these leaders and other policy makers in Central Florida to look to the study to help guide more investments and decisionmaking, while utilizing our community’s resources, to address chronic panhandling in new and innovative ways.
The City of Orlando is a national leader in combating homelessness, having made steady progress over the years on the issue. I am confident that with that record and the information the study provides, the city, business leaders, and all caring members of the Central Florida family will work to develop new programs to address chronic homelessness and solve panhandling once and for all.