Panhandling in Memphis: Arrests up, but program offers alternative

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Aggressive panhandling arrests more than triple in two years

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The number of citations and arrests for panhandling are higher than ever in Memphis, while another initiative is gaining attention for putting potential panhandlers to work.

A crowd gathered outside 82 North Second in downtown Memphis early on a recent morning. Only 10 were invited inside, but the prize wasn’t the warm building.

They landed a job for the day.

“Once I get the first call, I’ll get the first location,” Kareem Cooper said.

Cooper works at the Hospitality Hub, a non-profit helping people get out of homelessness. He’s in charge of the Work Local program that gives about 10 people a few days a week the opportunity to make $50 cleaning the streets of Memphis.

“They had situations, and at one point in their life, they had it all. One snap of a finger it led to homelessness,” Cooper said.

It’s a sad reality Cooper knows well. He is a former University of Memphis basketball player who had a full scholarship, but life took a turn when a felony was added to his record.

“If you’re felon, it’s hard to find work,” he said — especially a full-time, stable job.

The program offers an alternative way for those in need to make a quick buck. The locations they clean are spots you’ve called about through the 311 line.

“It’s getting me off the streets. Getting a little money in my pocket right now,” said Jeff Rosenboom.

He was happy to get work through the program, and said family problems led him to this point.

“I have been down here about two weeks and haven’t been able to get a job yet. This is helping out,” he said.

We asked what he would do with the money.

“Pay a few days at the mission,” he responded with a small smile.

Rosenboom says without this work, he’d likely have to beg for the money.

Panhandling is a familiar sight you see throughout the Bluff City. Police say before they arrest anyone for it, they first try to help them.

“The last thing we want to do is arrest someone on anything, but we have a job we have to do and we will do it,” said Memphis Police Col. Gloria Bullock, who is stationed at the downtown precinct. “We have a large population downtown of panhandling. One of the reasons is because we have the largest tourist population. Tourists can be easy targets for people pandering for money.”

If someone doesn’t have a permit and is asking for money, she said they are violating city ordinance and can be issued a citation.

“If they stand there and don’t bother anyone, we don’t really have an issue. It’s when they bother someone we are drawn in,” she explained.

That’s when police will arrest someone for aggressive panhandling.

“We can’t have people harassed,” Bullock said.

MPD says it’s cracking down on panhandling, and you can see that when you look at the data we uncovered. There have been more and more panhandling citations issued over the past three years.

Aggressive panhandling arrests went from 46 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. All panhandling citations increased from 164 in 2017 to 262 in 2019.

Memphis has a 27% poverty rate, and Cooper said homelessness is a real problem. He said there must be alternatives.

Cooper believes we would see less panhandling if Hospitality Hub had more money and could expand the Work Local program.

“You’ll notice it says, ‘building partnerships for progress.’ That means any and every one could help,” he said. “ It would be a great difference.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Work Local program: https://www.hospitalityhub.org/worklocal/

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