Voucher programs for panhandlers aim for ‘real change, not spare change’ – by Tom Marcinko October 24, 2014 5:00AM ET

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — “Willing to accept verbal abuse and disgusted looks in exchange for money,” reads the hand-lettered cardboard sign on a downtown sidewalk.

Yet the sign’s owner, who gives only the name Dave, cheerfully accepts another option: a booklet of five $1 coupons redeemable for food at a handful of local stores and one restaurant.

The weeks-old voucher program is this mountain town’s latest attempt to deal with a frequent and unwelcome sight: panhandlers. The Better Bucks program, launched by the Flagstaff Police Department and a local nonprofit, the Shadows Foundation, is intended to give residents, tourists and university students an alternative to handing out cash to people in need.

Flagstaff made national headlines last year after police arrested a woman for begging. A lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona led a U.S. district court to declare Arizona’s anti-panhandling law unconstitutional. Police in this city of 65,870 made about 140 arrests under that law from April 2012 to April 2013, according to police chief Kevin Treadway.

Some Flagstaff merchants, like used-book store owner Evan Midling, note a rise in panhandling since that ruling — “Yes, even in a bookstore,” he said. Panhandlers with signs asking for help are a common sight near highway ramps and busy intersections.

Shadows Foundation director Vicki Burton, whose organization provides financial assistance for families with medical problems and other needy people, including the homeless, said the police approached her about seven months ago for a better way to discourage panhandling. With Treadway’s blessing and the tacit support of the City Council, Better Bucks is the result.

The vouchers forbid the purchase of “anything containing alcohol” — including mouthwash, cough syrup and hair spray — alleviating concerns that some panhandlers spend cash handouts to support drug or alcohol habits, Burton said, adding that the vouchers make possible “giving without enabling.” To discourage hoarding or reselling, only one booklet’s worth of coupons can be used for each visit to participating merchants.

Burton said that, just as important, each booklet includes a pass to Flagstaff’s Mountain Line bus system, plus the addresses and phone numbers of about a dozen local charities.

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