It's a fact: Cops don't have time to deal with everyday panhandlers. Most small businesses don't have the budget to pay for security personnel to stand in front of their shops, and even mall cops can't spend every hour of their shift rousting beggars. I've lived and worked in downtown Salt Lake City a long time. I know my transient neighbors—if not by name, then by sight. They include panhandlers I see once or twice before they disappear forever; runaways who over time fall into a downward spiral of addiction; folks living in low-income/SRO (single room occupancy) housing who come out during the day and pretend they're homeless, begging in order to augment their fixed incomes; and professional panhandlers working alone or in teams. Many subsidize their tax-free incomes by serving as lookouts for drug dealers, or actually holding drugs for dealers. Calling 911 doesn't warrant cops rushing to the scene, unless a panhandler is harming someone or something. Many beggars know the laws and how to get around them. So how do we deal with panhandlers?
Salt Lake City and the Downtown Alliance have hired a private company, Streetplus, to train individuals as "ambassadors" to local panhandlers and street people. Steve Hilliard of Streetplus says uniformed greeters and watchers will give directions to tourists and have "quality-of-life interactions" with the downtrodden. Riding bikes and Segways, personnel will keep an eye out for graffiti, crime, lost tourists and beyond. Business and property owners have asked SLPD for more foot patrols in core downtown areas, but they just don't have the manpower. Now there'll be a new layer of professionals who'll not only move them along, but direct them to homeless services. Many ambassadors are also social workers trained in assisting street people.
The holiday season is rushing full speed downtown. The MoTab Christmas concerts sold out in less than an hour; Macy's is working on its candy-window display, and lights are going up on Main Street and Temple Square. Around this time, professional panhandlers park themselves at City Creek and Temple Square. One officer I spoke with recently about a particularly well-known beggar, told me that she has informed the police that she will never leave her spot because she makes too much money during Christmas. Maybe this new street team can help women like her find a safer and more comfortable way to make a living.