Just six months after city staff put anti-panhandling signs on downtown traffic light poles and in the windows of local businesses, Evanston will remove them.
The signs have stirred up controversy over how the city treats its homeless population, according to a Monday morning email from newly appointed City Manager Luke Stowe to Mayor Daniel Biss and City Council members.
The signs, which are posted in high-traffic areas where panhandlers tend to ask pedestrians for money, feature the phrase “Have a heart. Give smart,” and encourage Evanston residents to donate to social service organizations instead of giving cash or change directly to people requesting help. Originally, former interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski and her staff decided to erect the signs because of concerns about aggressive panhandling, such as verbally or physically harassing pedestrians.
But many of the signs have been defaced or vandalized, and many residents have complained about the signs, saying they are anti-homeless, according to Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid.
“City staff still supports the concept and goal behind the signage but felt the actual signs were ineffective, becoming eyesores and requiring staff intervention,” Stowe wrote in the Monday email. “Staff is happy to work with local businesses that would like to post a similar message in their storefront windows.”
In January Gandurski proposed the signs at a city meeting based on information from officials in Rockford, who said they saw a decline in aggressive panhandling after posting similar signs around the city. But the Evanston Police Department only recorded one citation for aggressive panhandling in all of 2021, although the city does receive more 911 calls for aggressive panhandling than the number of tickets it writes for the offense, according to Police Commander Ryan Glew.
Reid said he opposed the signs from the beginning and said he would prefer to see the city invest in affordable housing infrastructure and homeless shelters instead of simply advising people against panhandling.
“I think we need to end the practice of criminalizing homelessness and the effects of homelessness, as long as it’s not causing property damage or physical damage to another human being,” Reid said. “I think these signs being removed helps decrease the hostility to the homeless population, and hopefully this will be an impetus for us to take real action on addressing homelessness, as opposed to putting a Band-Aid over it and trying to cover our eyes to what is clearly in front of us.”
Local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless also served on a task force to advise the city on the anti-panhandling signs. At the time, Connections Director of Development Nia Tavoularis told the RoundTable that people often conflate homelessness and panhandling, though they are two separate experiences based on two different needs.
Tavoularis did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the RoundTable about how Connections for the Homeless reacted to the decision to remove the signs and how the city should move forward in addressing its relationship with the local homeless and financially insecure populations.
In an email to the RoundTable, Jessie Mayo, the city’s community and employee engagement coordinator, said the city stands by the “Have a heart” campaign and its message of “safety, access to resources and information, and panhandling reduction.”
“The City of Evanston remains committed to the ‘Have a Heart, Give Smart’ campaign to help raise awareness about organizations who help connect community members with social service assistance,” Mayo said. “The signage program alone was not effective in achieving this. In fact, the signs became the target for graffiti and quickly became an additional maintenance burden.”
Moving forward, the city will continue working with local restaurants and businesses to inform residents about panhandling and opportunities for donating to community organizations that provide social services, according to Mayo. Those efforts could include new window signs and postcards that businesses can hand out to customers, for example.
In March, soon after the “Have a heart” signs first went up, the RoundTable interviewed a woman named Karla, who sometimes panhandles outside Trader Joe’s and was sleeping on the CTA’s Purple Line at night before finding a place to stay with a friend.
“We need to panhandle to make money and that [sign] takes away from us,” Karla said. “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.”
Sam Stroozas contributed reporting.