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Corvallis chamber: Just say no to panhandlers

The Corvallis Chamber of Commerce and local homeless shelters are teaming up to ask residents not to give their money to panhandlers on the city's streets.

The Chamber of Commerce is handing out placards labeled “Handouts Don’t Help,” asking residents to stop giving spare change to panhandlers outside local businesses. Instead, they advise people to donate the money to local homeless shelters and food assistance programs throughout the city.

More than a dozen local businesses have agreed to participate in the initiative within the past couple of weeks, including OfficeMax, The Book Bin, Market of Choice, University Hero Sandwiches, the Corvallis branch of the U.S. Postal Service and New Morning Bakery.

The latest initiative is aimed at deterring panhandling, not at preventing donations to the homeless, said Kevin Dwyer, the president of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce.

“This time of year, people tend to be in the giving mood, and because they’re in that mood, they’ll see someone panhandling, and they’ll give out their spare change,” Dwyer said. “What we would like them to do is think about the agencies that are trying to help (the homeless), rather than giving the panhandlers money directly. Some of them are legit and need help, but they may be using the money for drugs or alcohol. And you really don’t know where your money is going when you give it to them.”

Dwyer said he has handed out more than 100 placards to local businesses in the past few weeks and plans to continue to distribute them throughout the holiday season. Few businesses have refused to hand out or display the placards, he noted.

“The only challenge I’m running into is largely from bigger stores that have company policies against handing out notices or information to customers,” he said. “A lot of the smaller or independent stores have said yes because they will have an easier time distributing these because they don’t have to worry about corporate policy.”

The placards ask residents to donate the money to organizations such as Housing First, Room at the Inn Women’s Cold Weather Shelter, Community Outreach, Stone Soup, the South Corvallis Food Bank and the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.

Gina Vee, of Corvallis Housing First, said the groups are trying to dispel the myth that panhandlers and homeless people are one and the same.

“I believe that, for the most part, panhandlers are not the homeless,” Vee said. “I never recognize the panhandlers as people who use our shelter. I don’t know if they’re locals but they are not the people we see. I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to help these people in need is to give to these established organizations.”

Vee added that there are enough organizations around Corvallis that people in need of food or shelter do not need to panhandle.

“If they need services, we’re available to feed them and to shelter them and help give them access to medical care,” Vee said. “I believe that we would go a long way to both address people who are in poverty and homeless if we stopped giving to panhandlers. I’m very concerned that many of these panhandlers come to Corvallis looking to get some money quickly, because the people who live here are quite sympathetic and generous to those in need.”

The idea is catching on with some business owners, including Bob Van Vleet, the owner of University Hero Sandwiches.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea, and I’d rather not see panhandlers in town,” Van Vleet said. “I would hope this would work. I think if enough people get the message, I think it will make a difference.”

Van Vleet added that his business donates food to the local shelters every day.

“It doesn’t really cost us anything to donate bread, but it helps them a lot,” Van Vleet said. “I think giving to people who are trying to help and do this for a living is the best way to go about it.”