Dozens of anti-panhandling signs have gone up on Evanston's streets and in businesses windows. Photo by Sam Stroozas.

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On Ridge Avenue in north Evanston on a recent afternoon, a woman stood in the street asking for money.

The woman, who didn’t give her name, had heard of the new signs going up across Evanston hoping to deter people from panhandling. A friend told her, and she said she saw one outside of Whole Foods, where she sometimes panhandles.

“I don’t think it’s right. It’s discriminatory,” she said of the signs.

It’s hard to miss the anti-panhandling signs adorning stoplights and street signs on the corners of the Main-Dempster Mile, Downtown Evanston and Central Street. Many stores have poster versions of the sign affixed in their windows.

“Have a heart, give smart,” the sign reads. “Panhandling isn’t safe. Donate to social service organizations today.”

The bottom portion of the sign provides a phone number to resources and a website that provides links for community resources in the area.

Interim City Manager Kelly Gandurski spoke at a city meeting in January saying that the idea came from officials in Rockford, who said they saw their “aggressive panhandling” decline after installing the signs.

Gandurski also said during the meeting that it is not safe for residents to open their wallets to people asking for money, and that they may not be homeless.

Nia Tavoularis, Director of Development for Connections for the Homeless, says panhandling and homelessness are not interchangeable. While some may assume people asking for money are homeless, each case is different and panhandling is a symptom of people not having all of the resources they need to survive.

“It is common for people to conflate the experience of homelessness with panhandling. However, they are two separate issues,” Tavoularis said. “People who are panhandling need money, and people who are experiencing homelessness need housing. Sometimes people need both of those things, but not always.”

Connections participated in the task force that provided feedback on the drafts of the signs before they were posted. The main reason for the signs is due to “aggressive panhandling,” and Tavoularis says that Connections works with their clients if they are informed of an incident and the repercussions of doing so, or, if they are not a client, they will try to offer them services if they need them.

“We respect any individual’s constitutional right to free speech, which includes the right to ask for money from strangers,” she said.

Patrick Deignan, Communications Manager for the City Manager’s office, wrote in an email that the signs, 19 in all throughout Evanston, are being placed in areas where aggressive panhandling has been observed or reported.

Many businesses have paper versions of the anti-panhandling sign up in their store fronts. (Photo by Sam Stroozas)

Panhandling and homelessness

In recent weeks, there’s been much discussion in the city about the homeless population. On March 13, more than 200 people gathered at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to discuss plans for the Margarita Inn to become a permanent facility to house those in need. Connections began housing people at Margarita Inn at the start of the pandemic on an emergency basis.

Those in attendance were split on the topic, with some in favor and others pushing for zoning processes and a few with complaints about the clients the nonprofit serves.

The average length of stay at Margarita Inn is about 10 months, and the wait list for the facility is typically between 50 and 80 people. Black residents older than 60 make up 60% of the residents. The Margarita Inn plans to apply for a special use permit to take over the hotel permanently.

In an interview, Cmdr. Ryan Glew of the Evanston Police Department said those asking for money may already be residents of different facilities in town such as Albany Care, Margarita Inn, Hilda’s Place or Connections for the Homeless.

“When appropriate, we are going to try to assist people with resources, but a lot of it already has to do with if they are under the care of a residential facility and if there are services we can put them in touch with that would give them the resources they need,” he said.

Glew said that while there are 911 calls for aggressive panhandling, only one citation was issued in 2021. The ticket, obtained via FOIA request, was issued on Sept. 22, 2021 at the corner of Main Street and Ridge Avenue. Glew said, though, that the low number of tickets does not mean that aggressive panhandling does not occur in Evanston.

The person ticketed last year was approaching cars at the stoplight asking for money and knocking on windows, refusing to walk away. As opposed to non-aggressive panhandling, this situation violates Evanston ordinances.

Evanston Police Sgt. Tosha Wilson shared at the first ward meeting on March 24 that in the monthly beat report, five batteries were included in the 20 calls for service and some involved aggressive panhandling.

Interim Police Chief Richard Eddington said the community policing unit has been working with groups such as Trilogy Behavioral Health Care because of the overlap between panhandling and mental health issues.

To be defined as aggressive panhandling in Evanston, one of the following actions have to occur:

  1. Panhandling or soliciting a person standing at an automated teller machine while located within 10 feet of that person.
  2. Panhandling or soliciting a person standing at an automated teller machine while the person is standing at the machine and within 15 seconds after the person begins to leave the machine.
  3. Repeating a panhandling or soliciting request when the person is stationary and has refused an immediately prior request made at that location. Examples of a person who is stationary include:
    1. Someone waiting in line, at a bus stop or for a traffic signal
    2. Someone seated on a public bench or in a car parked or stopped in a public  street or alley
    3. Someone sitting, standing, or otherwise in or upon a premises they own or occupy
  4. Touching the person to whom the panhandling or soliciting request is made without that person’s consent.
  5. Panhandling or soliciting while blocking the path of a person to whom the panhandling or soliciting request is made, or blocking the entrance to any premises, building or vehicle.
  6. Following behind, alongside or ahead of the person to whom the panhandling or soliciting request is made during or after the request.
  7. Directing profane or abusive language at the person to whom the panhandling or soliciting request is made at any time immediately before, during or after panhandling or soliciting.
  8. Immediately before, during, or after panhandling or soliciting, making any statement other than the panhandling or soliciting request or acting in any other manner which, in light of the circumstances taken as a whole, e.g., darkness, would cause a reasonable person to feel harassed, intimidated, or compelled to contribute.

In the Sept. 22 case in which the ticket was issued, the person was cited for repeating a panhandling request when a person has refused.

In a recent video made by EPD about panhandling, Officer Brian Rust, member of the EPD problem-solving team, explained the ordinance and said residents should “not feel obligated to give to a panhandler. The Evanston community is sensitive to those in need and offers a variety of resources to provide food and shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Community reaction

Artist Daniel Burnett, who recently created a mural at Brothers K Coffeehouse about homelessness and his father’s journey of being unhoused, said the signs are anti-homeless.

While painting his mural, he saw the signs pop up around Evanston and believes they will cause a further divide between panhandlers and other people.

“Some people are fearful and will feel further fearful of [panhandlers],” he said. “It’s really only one or two people ever causing problems, and it is a tricky situation of how you address it, but a generalized sign like this does nothing but make the problem worse.”

Evanston resident Maggie Coyne said in an interview that she does not think the signs are reaching the root of the problem.

“It’s frustrating to see tactics like this because I don’t think it will stop anyone from panhandling. If you have money for signs, you probably have money to do some more outreach,” Coyne said. “From a personal standpoint, I have never felt harassed by anyone who asked me for money and I have lived in Evanston for almost my entire life.

“It doesn’t mean aggressive panhandling doesn’t happen though, I am just one person. I understand that people feel uncomfortable being approached but it’s not the same as standing in the street asking for money because you have to.”

She said it doesn’t seem the goal with the signs is to give panhandlers resources, but to deter Evanstonians from giving money to an individual.

‘Almost makes me feel helpless’

Karla, who didn’t want to share her name, and her boyfriend, sometimes ask for money outside Trader Joe’s grocery store. Her boyfriend is a client at Connections for the Homeless.

Karla was sleeping on the CTA’s Purple Line for a while at night and is now staying with a friend. She says she recently has been panhandling to make ends meet.

It “almost makes me feel helpless,” she said. “We need to panhandle to make money and that [sign] takes away from us. I don’t think we are aggressive. We follow the rules of the stores and stay outside of the zones and we just ask people if they would be able to help us out.”

“I think the signs are biased [against] the homeless,” her boyfriend added. “Some people, you don’t know what they have been through. They are in dire need. Maybe they come across as aggressive, but we’re out here.”

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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  1. I think these signs will further alienate the Evanston community by class/money. Which is already a problem that has been growing. Evanston is starting to feel less and less welcoming by the day. I’m glad the voices of people who this actually affects were used in the article, Thank you.

  2. I stopped giving money to panhandlers after one literally THREW the change I gave him back at me. I was young and had just spent the last paper money I had on me on my L ticket. I had just gotten off the L at North and Clyborn. He said he was trying to get enough for the night at the nearby YMCA. I told him all I had on me was some change but it could at least get him closer to a room and I gave it to him. It was around $.70 in dimes, nickels and pennies. I gave it to him, he looked at it, said something about being insulted and THREW the coins AT me. Obviously I left quickly at that point. I mainly donate to charities now and occasionally give out a gift card to Target when I see someone asking for their family or I give actual items like socks or long underwear to people in the winter. I never give cash anymore.

  3. Why wasn’t this rather significant change in the culture in Evanston passed through a vetting process by our elected officials? It appears only City staff and a nonprofit had a say in the need for these signs and their wording, thereby effectively bypassing input from those PAYING for them . Why?

  4. This is such a tricky issue and I applaud our town’s efforts. The panhandling seems to have changed in tenor in recent months and I’m not sure it’s all pandemic related. Because of the pandemic, I did start occasionally giving people money which I had never done before. My policy had always been to look people in the eyes and acknowledge their humanity (when I wasn’t afraid), and maybe say some thing but not open my wallet. But after the pandemic started I did give money a few times. The last two times, the events that followed made me feel scammed, and I’ve stopped again. The events following and the concomitant feeling of having been scammed, is the tenor change. I hope our contributions to organizations we believe in, helps to make a difference.

  5. The RoundTable deserves credit for interviewing panhandlers and bringing them into the conversation. Thank you.