New campaign urges you to stop giving panhandlers money

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new campaign is urging you to stop giving money to panhandlers.

The ad blitz, which will include TV public service announcements and billboards, urges people to stop handing out change to people with a sad story.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said panhandling is a business, not charity.

"We need to educate people on what happens with those dollars and the risk they are taking," she said.

A new ad targeting panhandling in Utah.

The ads argue that giving money to panhandlers fuels drug or alcohol addictions or goes directly into a scammer's bank account. At a news conference on Thursday, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said she knew of one man who boasted of making as much as $20,000 in a year of begging on the streets (he tucked the money into a bank account).

She said money given to panhandlers doesn't help the needy, but people continue to be sucked in by a sad face or a handmade sign with a tragic story.

"They see somebody with a sign that says homeless, and it says to them I must give because my church has taught me to give," Atkinson told FOX 13.

Instead, Atkinson said, if you donate to a reputable homeless service provider it will go toward actually helping people.

A woman asks for change in downtown Salt Lake City on July 13, 2017. (Image by Todd Gilbert, FOX 13 News)

On the streets of Salt Lake City, panhandlers have become a constant presence despite past efforts to squash the practice. Signs are up throughout downtown warning against giving to panhandlers. Old street meters have been repurposed to take change to go to homeless service providers.

"Those little red boxes ain't doing it?" said a panhandler named Richard, when approached by FOX 13 outside City Creek Center.

He chuckled when told of the new campaign. Richard insisted he was asking for money because social service providers aren't helping.

"We're out here looking for help not anything else. They’re not helping enough," he said.

Richard talks to FOX 13's Ben Winslow about the new anti-panhandling campaign as he asks for change outside City Creek Center on July 13, 2017. (Image by Todd Gilbert, FOX 13 News)

Court rulings have held that panhandling is constitutionally-protected free speech. Earlier this week, a panhandler named Steve Evans took Sandy City to federal court over its anti-panhandling ordinance.

Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature passed a law prohibiting giving and taking money or goods from high-traffic thoroughfares. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he was not opposed to more laws that targeted panhandling (so long as it was constitutional).

The new ad campaign is one of many approaches Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the state are taking to deal with crime and homeless issues downtown. A recent spate of crimes around the Rio Grande neighborhood has angered Hughes, who has suggested a state takeover may be necessary if something isn't done about it.

"I expect improvement. And I mean quickly," Hughes said.

Biskupski said the city, county, state and community groups are working together to address criminal activity in the area.