Serving The Indigent In A Liberal City

Many years ago I accepted a United Way request and spent two weeks visiting businesses around the Twin Cities as a CEO speaker-sponsor.  The job was to encourage other employers to enthusiastically promote the United Way Campaign among their employees.  The Twin Cities are generous givers and I already knew the leadership at many of the firms which I visited; and my suggestions for increasing employee participation were well received.

A frequent question received when I spoke to suburban employee audiences was, why was it appropriate for such a large part of their donations to go to agencies physically located in the Metro which were serving a primarily inner-city clientele? The stock answer was that costs could be reduced by centralizing services and operating them on a larger scale – at a few central locations – rather than all over.

The data I received during my orientation seemed to prove that increasing funding and moving agencies into the Metro greatly increased Metro clients.  However, the question of whether that need had existed to the same extent before services became easier to get, or if increased demand had been created by the simple act of making it less effort to get them.

That issue was raised only once at my speeches and meetings.  The female employee who brought up that question told her fellow employees that although she has kids to take care of and works full time, she and her husband do most of what’s needed for a disabled relative themselves.  She told us she does so because going downtown was more inconvenient than they could handle given their busy schedules.  She reported, “Of course there’s more taking of any free service there.  If they were available here I’d use them too.” The reaction from other employees at that meeting indicated many agreed with her. 

The Minneapolis Police and City Council at one time suggested that handouts not be given to those that some call “homeless.”  Back then the homeless were creating a scandal by frequently approaching visitors shopping or eating outdoors at tables in front of restaurants on Nicollet Mall, while the city was advertising that the Mall’s development would increase people coming downtown.

A brochure then available reported that Hennepin County Social Services were also discouraging giving cash to indigents.  Their argument seemed the strongest.  They reported that giving cash harmed the recipient by discouraging their use of county public services which many badly needed.  They also noted that these services were at taxpayer expense.

I believe that it’s been several years since brochures with the no-handout message were placed on table tops at restaurants downtown. A year or two ago I asked a Minneapolis police officer about the policy, and if the department was still advising against handouts.  He replied, “We just get involved when they get too aggressive.”  

What happened?  Maybe the businesses just gave up.  Or perhaps the image of multiple panhandlers accosting visitors was too destructive to the image of the city’s Nicollet Mall development project.  My friend thinks the change was because we now have an even more progressive city council which likely decided the Hennepin County’s suggestion to stop giving handouts was just too politically incorrect for them to support.

Today the social services agencies are even more numerous than they were then, and remain concentrated in the Metros.  There have been no noticeable cuts in the budgets for taxpayer funded welfare and social service programs.  The United Way still asks for private donations to add to the taken taxpayer funds.  And street people asking for money in downtown Minneapolis are more numerous than ever.

According to research by the MINN POST (“To Give or Not to Give,” December 15, 2017), “Metro area panhandlers are now usually permanent residents,” “Are moving to the suburbs where the money is better.”  “The tax free cash averages $100-200 per shift” of a couple hours.  “Some make $500 in a night at a good spot.”  “Most are not homeless.”  “Police report many are drug addicts.”


All of this implies that those unfortunate enough to drive into downtown Minneapolis everyday are now not having to wait until they park to be asked to give someone money.  Most are now encountering the first person with a “PLEASE HELP” sign as they approach the highway on ramp.

Jim Van Houten