Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It may seem easier to give in, but don't give a hand-out.

Most of us who live, work, or go to events in Southside or Downtown Birmingham have heard the lines: "Spare some change for something to eat?" "I need [x] dollars to get to Bessemer." "My wife's just out of the hospital and we need to get home to Nashville."

The people who use these lines are panhandlers, and they're not simply annoying you. Many of them are breaking the law. A 1996 Birmingham City Ordinance makes aggressive panhandling a crime.

Furthermore, as if you didn't know, these people are usually lying. Maybe you tell yourself that they're lying because they don't want to say outright that they're homeless. But in truth, they're probably not homeless.

According to Michael Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham (ONB), "Most panhandlers are not homeless and most homeless are not panhandlers." (Begging in downtown Birmingham might get tougher [08/30/10]).

The sad truth is that many panhandlers are seeking money to support an addiction to alcohol or other drugs. If we give in to the "easy fix" of handing them even a little money, we may perpetuate their problems instead of working on a solution.

You don't need to be mean about your refusal. You can say "No" and keep walking. If you also say "I don't carry change," you may discourage other beggars nearby, too. And, of course, you don't have to say anything.

These statements and tactics may seem harsh to the Southerner who wants to be polite and helpful. They're not.

The good news is that you can help people in need without giving in to panhandlers. It's actually fairly easy.

Several legitimate charitable organizations provide support for those in need in the Birmingham area, including
First Light
Jessie’s Place/Jimmie Hale Mission
The Old Firehouse Shelter, and
Birmingham Salvation Army.

Community support programs are also run by many Birmingham churches. In the 5 Points area, outreach programs exist at
Southside Baptist Church
Highlands United Methodist Church
St. Mary's on the Highlands Episcopal Church
Similar programs exist at many other local churches.

A donation of time or money to one of these organizations or churches can help people with genuine needs.

If you've been approached by a panhandler and want to take a more aggressive stance, call City Action Partnership (CAP) at 251-0111 to report the incident. Your call may help someone get the help they really need.

Birmingham Festival Theatre (BFT) supports the efforts of ONB, CAP, and local officials to discourage illegal panhandling in our community. For more information about the city's efforts to help those in need and combat the crime of panhandling, visit or

As always, BFT appreciates the support of local theatre-goers. We believe that spirit of support and loyalty can be extended even further into the community if they, too, support the city's efforts in this cause.

Lee Griner
Secretary, Birmingham Festival Theatre

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