Be an educated giver
Washtenaw County is no stranger to panhandling, but where it is most prevalent, in downtown Ann Arbor, businesses are not wary of beggars.
Russ Collins runs one of those businesses. The executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater, located in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor at the corner of Liberty and South State Street, stands firm that panhandling is a natural part of his environment and that business will continue to proceed undeterred.
“It’s part of an urban landscape,” Collins said. “The good thing is that panhandling represents a human dynamic. The bad thing is that it’s kind of annoying. I don’t perceive that it is affecting business negatively.”
Collins looks to the tight-knit nature of Washtenaw County as having contributed to local fear of the destitute.
“An interesting conundrum is that Washtenaw County doesn’t have a big city,” Collins said. Most people in the county are nice suburban types who think of home as a house and a yard; a downtown is not like that.”
Perceiving a peak in neighborhood begging coinciding with the high volume of students returning during late August and early September, Collins believes that panhandlers may have found greater success during this period. Collins sees students as an easy target for panhandlers.
“Here you have young, optimistic people with a lot of pocket money in the area,” Collins said. They know students are easy pickings.
Ellen Shulmeister worries about pedestrian exploitation as well. The executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County cautions generosity for a people she believes are seldom to be trusted.
“Be an educated giver,” Shulmeister said. “People tell stories while panhandling that are not necessarily true. Most are trying to get extra money for alcohol and drug use.”
Citing a supportive community as providing unwitting support for street hustlers, Shulmeister is adamant that beggars are usually not in need. Shulmeister contends that 95 percent of panhandlers are not homeless.
“Panhandling is a problem because people think they are all homeless,” Shulmeister said. “It’s an extremely caring community, but when people are panhandling for money, it is essentially their job. People often have a hard time saying no.”
Shulmeister is certain that needs are being met. Looking to Washtenaw County’s many public services for those in need, Shulmeister challenges the idea that the destitute need petty cash.
“In Ann Arbor, people can eat. There is no reason why anyone would be hungry in Ann Arbor, with the feeding programs offered,” Shulmeister said. “It’s good to be a little suspicious. If you give money, do it with your eyes open.”
Like Collins, Shulmeister worries about misconceptions from wealthy pedestrians and students on the downtown, UM campus.
“A big concentration is on campus or in the campus area,” Shulmeister said. “I’ve even heard rumors that panhandlers view the area as quite lucrative.”
For Abraham Hegazi, owner of Allure Boutique on West Liberty Street, 15 years of working in that very area has revealed two distinct categories of panhandlers.
“Some people, they really can’t walk; I would love to help them.” Hegazi said. “But we have to watch out for certain aggressive panhandlers.”
Hegazi also holds Shulmeisters fears of substance abuse as motivation for this aggressive panhandling.
“People out panhandling to buy crack – I am concerned about them,” Hegazi said. “Maybe a guy asks you for a dollar and he really needs it, but there are other kinds of panhandlers who only want to continue their bad habits.”
Like Collins, Hegazi is unafraid of the pressure created by doing business among the needy. Hegazi sees broader, national problems as cause for any slight to operations of commerce in Washtenaw County.
“I can’t blame panhandling for business being bad with this economy today,” Hegazi said.
Furthermore, Collins believes local hysteria to be the result of a society built on sensationalism.
“Fear sells; comfort doesn’t,” Collins said. “That’s why we have the government we do.”