DNAinfo.com: Don’t-give-cash-to-homeless campaign slammed by advocates

THE LOOP — A new charity campaign launched last week by a Downtown business group has already garnered more than $100 in donations and one scathing letter from a local advocate for the homeless.

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless told the Chicago Loop Alliance on Wednesday that its “Change for the Better” campaign stigmatizes the people asking for money on Downtown streets, spreads misinformation about what is and isn’t legal panhandling, and violates the Illinois Homeless Bills of Rights.

“We worry about the stew of bias that gets cooked up about people that are in these desperate situations,” Rene Heybach, who wrote the letter and is senior counsel at the law project, told DNAinfo Chicago. “When we read that brochure we thought ‘this is setting our folks up to be targeted, especially in the tourist district.’ ”

Launched last week, Change for the Better implores Downtown visitors to give their money online to one of 15 non-profit organizations that serve the homeless instead of to individuals on the street. The website had raised $155 as of Thursday evening.

The campaign also involves the Loop Alliance’s Street Team Ambassadors, who passed out pamphlets defining what is legal “passive” panhandling and illegal “aggressive” panhandling to Downtown passersby last week. The Loop Alliance provides services on State Street from Wacker Drive to Congress Parkway to promote economic development and tourism in the area.

The CCH took exception to language in the pamphlets, which they believe implies any verbal request for money on the street is illegal. The pamphlet also advises Downtown business owners to call 911 as a first resort if they witness “aggressive” panhandling.

“The brochure suggests that ‘any statement or gesture which makes you feel fearful’ is unlawful,” Heybach wrote in the letter. “That is simply not true. If an individual has an irrational or bigoted fear of another, that should not criminalize legal activity.”

As of January, there were 20,546 people in Chicago’s Central Referral System, or waiting list for supportive housing. The average time for someone on the list who has not yet been housed is 322 days, Heybach said.

Instead of telling people not to give their money directly to the homeless, who she feels are being unfairly blanketed by the campaign as people who would abuse the generosity, the Loop Alliance and other organizations should focus on improving the environment around them, Heybach argues. She added the CCH was asked by the Loop Alliance to be one of the campaign’s beneficiaries, and the organization declined.

“What people are seeing on the street is really the lack of commitment of dollars to solving this problem,” she said. “It’s not the moral failure of the people on the street that needs to be arrested and treated with disdain, it’s really a structural question of the lack of housing for the poorest folks, lack of jobs, et cetera.”

Loop Alliance President Michael Edwards said pamphlets are being reviewed by its lawyers, and he would be happy to change any language that is “inconsistent” with existing law. He denied that his organization is targeting Downtown’s homeless population, saying he is “surprised” by the criticism and that the Loop Alliance’s street team referred 5,800 people to various local social services last year alone.

“Our record would indicate these are people with real lives, and if we can get them into services they need, that’s good for them and good for State Street,” he said. “We think we have the right program. It’s a bit of education and kind of connecting how people give using new technology.”