Cover Story: Change for a Change

Cincinnati's panhandling legislation has surprising results

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Homelessness doesn't take the weekend off. Brent Chasteen (left), an outreach worker hired by Downtown Cincinnati Inc., chats with Richard, a homeless man, on a Sunday afternoon.

The city of Cincinnati's method of dealing with panhandling — increased restriction, coupled with cuts in social service funding — has prompted a private initiative to solve what's been called the No. 1 complaint about downtown.

A city ordinance enacted May 21 requires any person who asks for money or goods to register with the city for a license to beg. The law infuriated advocates for the poor, who said the city was adding red tape to the obstacles faced by a population in need of help.

More than 100 activists flooded the Cincinnati Health Department offices on Elm Street, registering as panhandlers in protest of the new law.

The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless had supported an earlier draft of the ordinance but withdrew its backing when city council dropped a $50,000 plan for an outreach worker who would connect panhandlers and others on the street with social services.

"I was disappointed when the ordinance passed without the outreach component," says Georgine Getty, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. "If we want to end panhandling, we have to first end the need to panhandle, which is what the outreach position addresses."

When city council threw out the provision for an outreach worker, Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI), a business organization, offered $25,000 to fund the position. The result has been a remarkable change in some people's lives.

What seemed at first glance a Band-Aid approach to complaints about panhandlers appears to be achieving some success.

"Tremendous" is the word many are using to describe Brent Chasteen, DCI's liaison among people in need of services, the agencies that provide them, downtown businesses and the police department. Since September, he has interacted with at least 103 people on the street, 35 of whom now have some form of housing.

In addition to connecting panhandlers with social services, Chasteen has created impressive collaborative relationships among factions that have historically been at odds.

"There's a unique relationship being built between the police, downtown business owners and social services that have never existed before," he says.

Rich Cappel, co-owner of Cappel's, is enthusiastic about the program.

"There's no doubt about it," he says. "Things are going in a great direction, which is refreshing. It's a huge improvement from two years ago."

Steven Prichard, a 44-year-old man Chasteen helped get off the streets, has experienced that improvement in the past two months. Until 1999 he had a job that allowed him to support a household of eight, including a daughter and five stepchildren.

Problems with alcohol led Prichard to lose his work and his family. He moved into a hotel, then in with a friend and eventually onto the street in 2000. After two days in the Drop-Inn Center, he decided it wasn't for him and moved underneath a bridge.

"I supported my habit by flying a sign," Prichard says. "In order to eat, I'd go to soup kitchens or dig in trash cans, depending on how hungry I was or what time it was. Yeah, I should have been out there working. But living under a bridge, how are you going to be on time for a job?"

'We should have helped'
How well the new ordinance works is difficult to measure. Cincinnati Police report 58 arrests of panhandlers downtown before June and 93 between June and November. The legislation facilitates arresting aggressive panhandlers, but doesn't change the actual mechanics of panhandling — it's legal so long as it's not done in the dark, near ATMs or crosswalks, doesn't involve lying or following people and, of course, one has a license. Violations are a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 30 days and a $250 fine.

About 260 people have applied for beggar licenses, according to Michael Shryock, who was re-assigned in June from full-time social worker for the health department to full-time duty registering panhandlers. Only half of those who have registered actually intended to panhandle, Shryock says.

Prior to his reassignment, Shryock worked in cancer counseling, stress management and other health-related programs at the Talbert House and the Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment (commonly known as the "CAT House"). Within the past month he has returned part-time to his previous duties, in addition to panhandler registration. There have been gradual cuts in the health department, he says.

"At one time, perhaps 10 years ago, the (Elm Street) health center had three full-time social workers," he says. "Now there's one part-time. I think what's been happening is that when people retire, they just don't replace them."

Two social workers are now responsible for covering the city's six health clinics, according to Shryock.

Asked whether he thinks the legislation is worthwhile, he declines comment. Instead he describes having to fill out registration papers for a man who could barely see.

"He needed glasses," Shryock says. "We should have been able to help him out."

'He's a cure'
Prichard had been living under the bridge for almost four years when what he calls "a higher power" intervened. One day, while holding his sign, someone dropped a squarish bronze coin in his cup — engraved on one side with the name of Talbert House and on the other with a prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ..."

Two weeks later another mysterious object landed in his cup — a silver, uneven coin with the figure of an angel on it. The next day, he saved a kitten from being run over. He took it under his care, accepting donations on its behalf.

"That cat had more food than Kroger," Prichard laughs.

Soon after, he met Chasteen.

"Brent came around the corner with his backpack, said, 'Can I talk to you?' " Prichard says. "The cat was climbing up his leg. He started talking to me and telling me that what he did for a living was to get people off the street."

At the time, Prichard, who is 6 feet tall, weighed 126 pounds; his normal weight is 185. Over the previous three weeks he had eaten only half a sandwich, his appetite drained by depression.

"I was actually dying out there," he says. "I felt like nobody cared."

Chasteen took Prichard to get his birth certificate, Social Security card and state ID, then to a treatment center.

"When I first went to the CAT House, it had been eight months since I had had a shower," Prichard says. "I can't express the feelings that I have for (the CAT House). It's like a lighthouse in the storm, a life-saver."

Having completed a detox program, he's now living in transitional housing. He's looking for work and hopes to eventually contact his family, who have not heard from him since he hit the streets.

"I miss my daughter really bad," Prichard says.

Lt. Doug Wiesman, a mountain-bike officer who commands the police department's Downtown Services Unit, has only the highest praise for Chasteen's work.

"I feel like I'm a symptomatic solution to the problem," Wiesman says. "He's a cure. He actually solves the problem. When you deal with the homeless population, it's a sad situation, a lot are veterans or have mental issues. I'd much rather, instead of sending them to jail, hook them up with Brent.

"The only place I can take somebody is to the Justice Center. He can take them to a myriad of social programs and get them hooked up with housing or a job or drug treatment programs. Instead of going back and forth on a daily basis with the same group of people, he can intervene. That allows us to spend more time working on more serious crime issues in the downtown area."

Getty joins police and business owners in acknowledging Chasteen.

"DCI's Outreach Worker has been a fantastic addition to the social service network of Cincinnati," she says. "This compassionate approach to panhandling is already yielding wonderful results as dozens of people have been engaged in the system and moved off of the streets and into housing."

Chasteen has served in various agencies over the past decade, including the Drop-Inn Center, Goodwill, Tender Mercies and the Center for Independent Living Options.

"My goal is to move people into housing and make sure the support is in place to help them maintain and sustain their housing," he says. "I engage everyone I see panhandling or that looks like they need help. I talk with everyone, do an informal quick assessment, give them my number. I am very accessible via my cell phone."

Ongoing support
Chasteen works until 3 a.m. if necessary, according to Wiesman. Prichard said Chasteen paid out-of-pocket to obtain his IDs.

Chasteen admits to working off the clock and investing his own money in the program. He says his accessibility is the main reason he can do the job well. In many cases, social workers are limited in the services they can provide because of restrictions in funding, he says.

"The beauty of this job is the freedom of it," Chasteen says. "It allows me to work with everybody. There doesn't have to be specific criteria. There's no outreach program for substance abuse, so I can fill that gap. People see panhandlers and automatically think they're homeless. A lot of them are. A lot of them are chronic alcoholics.

"Typically, there's a disabling condition, through substance abuse, mental illness, mental retardation or a physical disability. I work with people individually, try to address them the best I can. Ongoing support is the key to success."

Chasteen credits police for forging an alliance.

"The police have been invaluable to me in overcoming barriers," he says. "They have pushed social services and have given me time to do it before taking action. That's a milestone."

Chasteen admits the work can be overwhelming.

"I'm a one-man band," he says. "I do everything. I suggest they clone me. This needs more than one person, more of a team approach. Maybe one person doing outreach, one case-managing. Obviously more outreach is needed."

Cappel, a member of DCI's board, says there is a strong consensus to renew the outreach position.

Will the city get on board? The ordinance included a sunset provision, which means it will be up for review next spring. City Councilman Pat DeWine says it's unlikely the city will approve funding for the outreach position.

"I think there are strong feelings from the mayor and others on city council ... that it wouldn't pass," he says. "I think we're going to evaluate the program when the sunset provision comes up to see if it's been worthwhile."

Councilman-elect Christopher Smitherman, however, calls city funding an "easy call."

"I don't support the panhandling legislation because I think it's bad for the city to criminalize poverty," he says. "If they're viewing poverty as nuisance, they need to create jobs and opportunities for people in the city. Should the city be involved in this (outreach) person to support and find out why people are panhandling? Obviously I think the city should be involved in that process." ©

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