City of Springfield asks public not to give panhandlers money

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- If you drive around Springfield you've no doubt noticed panhandlers standing in the islands between lanes with signs asking for money.

The city of Springfield, local social service agencies and several faith- based organizations continue to work together to offer help to those panhandlers.

But because their efforts are not meeting with the success they had hoped, they're now asking for the public's help by requesting that you not feed the supply-and-demand chain. In other words, don't give them money.

The volunteer program "Wheels to Work" has a couple of buses that run two-days-a-week where they offer a long list of services from meals and showers to housing and from job opportunities to substance abuse counseling.

Joey Moreira and Jon Harber along with driver Matt Roberts volunteer their time traveling the streets of Springfield to offer a helping hand to panhandlers. And for Moreira, it's personal.

"I'm in a rehab facility because I almost killed myself through drinking 16 months ago."

As Moreira and Harber will tell you, everyone out on the streets they try to get to use their bus services has a different story.

On this day a young man from Florida at the corner of Battlefield and Campbell says he lost everything in a recent hurricane. While over on Glenstone a 72-year-old man who once ran away from the bus volunteers when they approached him now chats freely about his current living quarters in a tent in back of somebody's yard.

"Forty percent (of them) of stand-offish at first, Moreira said. "They're worried about what we might do because we're wearing these nice vests," he says of the bright orange vests the duo is required to wear as a safety precaution.

According to the volunteers, about 70% of the panhandlers are homeless, 80% have some form of mental or substance abuse problem, and 35% have a felony record.

"There are actually a lot of companies that will hire people with a felony record," Harber said when explaining that quite a few panhandlers say they can't find a job because of their checkered past.

But getting people with felony records or drug and alcohol problems to board this bus has been difficult. The city of Springfield says only about 15 percent of the panhandlers have taken advantage of all the services offered. And they are disappointed with that number.

"The success rate is not as high as I'd like to see it either, " Moreira said.

So the city's latest tactic is to ask drivers not to give money to panhandlers and instead to give it to Wheels to Work.

"We offer all kinds of services but money," Moreira said. " If we could just offer them something that would make them want to go look for a job."

" I also thought that possibly getting them right as their getting out of rehab or jail would help," Harber added. "Proactively getting something going would work better becauise once they start going down a certain path, it gets a little more difficult."