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Coming Downtown for ArtPrize? Here’s How to Deal with Panhandlers

Mike Simons/Getty Images

Coming to ArtPrize? While you’re enjoying the various pieces throughout Grand Rapids (especially downtown), it’s highly likely that you’ll be approached by someone asking for money, food or cigarettes.

No, it’s not the shiny and positive thing that most people want to talk about during ArtPrize and I understand that.  But because you may not be from a larger city or a frequent downtown GR visitor or very comfortable in a downtown setting in general, I want you to be aware of potential panhandlers and know how to react.

Why is begging/panhandling allowed?  Begging or panhandling is a protected “free speech.” Michigan had a law that banned panhandling; it was contested by the ACLU and taken to court.  In 2012 a U.S. District Court ruled the anti-begging law was unconstitutional. In early 2013, a federal appeals court upheld that decision.

The court said that begging, either as speech (asking for help) or expressive (wordlessly extending a container for donations), is protected by the First Amendment and is similar to charitable solicitations.

First, know that there is no such a thing as a stereotypical panhandler. I’ve been hit up by people ranging from very well-spoken and somewhat well-dressed, to poorly dressed and very convincing, to poorly dressed and very direct. Some will maintain a safe distance, some will walk right up to you, others will walk alongside of you.

Second, be skeptical. It’s okay! When you’ve been hit up for money and/or told some stories as often as downtown workers have, no story is convincing enough.

Unfortunately, I gave a fairly substantial amount of money ($40) to a very convincing woman. It was 11:30 at night, she seemed distraught and very legitimate. She even quickly and easily answered my questions about her kids, which I asked to see if she was legitimate. I later learned she ran that same story on one of my employees on another day.

Third, it’s okay to say “no” if someone asks you for money.  Seriously.  Don’t feel bad about it. Here are some responses you can use:

  • Sorry, I don’t have any money.
  • I don’t carry cash.
  • No.
  • No (sir or ma’am).
  • If you’re asking me for money, the answer is no.
  • My company is looking for some employees, I can give you information if you’d like work.

Fourth, should any of those asking for money touch or physically threaten you, they have crossed the line and broken the law. At that point you are justified in seeking police intervention.

There are organizations who help the poor and homeless here in West Michigan. The people asking you for money know these services and have probably used them, but they’d rather have money from you because it doesn’t come with strings attached.  Services are available at:

Finally, if you want to give money to someone, that’s okay. Another option would be offering to buy them lunch or some food. That way you know your money isn’t being used on drugs or alcohol.

While this entire blog may sound cold and heartless, I wanted you be aware that some people will ask you for money – some polite, some not so polite – when you’re downtown for ArtPrize. This is even more likely since the anti-panhandling law was struck down as unconstitutional.

Enjoy the art! Seriously! But don’t be caught off-guard by people who are going to hit you up for money, either.

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