Possible ban on aggressive panhandling, panhandling at controlled intersections, on horizon in Cedar Rapids

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- It's a common sight at the Collins Road overpass at Center Point Road: a solitary person holding up a sign, asking for money from passing drivers.

Earlier this month, TV9 spoke with a woman named Dawn standing in that spot. She told us she's been homeless for more than a year.

"Since I got kicked out of Hawthorne Hills, I've been homeless," Dawn told us. "I've been trying to find places to live."

She said she doesn't come here every day, just when she needs money, even during the cold winter months. We asked her where she stays at night.

"Some shelters, some friends, just wherever I can," Dawn explained. "the money I get goes towards me eating and me getting shelter."

But Dawn admitted to us not every roadside sob story is legitimate.

"There's a guy in a wheelchair," Dawn said, pointing toward Blairs Ferry Road. "He acts like he can't talk. He can talk, he can walk. He goes to the casino, he plays three or four slot machines at once. He does not need it."

That's one reason city council member Scott Olson has been working with Cedar Rapids police to enact a ban on panhandling at controlled intersections, and aggressive panhandling involving making physical contact, following people, or unwanted advances.

"People are frightened when somebody comes up and knocks on their window," Olson said. "They're just concerned about who are these people and why are they there?"

Olson believes most of the panhandlers in the city are professionals, or people who choose to do it despite having options for financial or housing assistance.

"I've been watching this for two or three years now, and it's the same faces," Olson told us. "In the past, the police department has followed some of these panhandlers. They get picked up in vans, they go back to homes. They are not homeless."

Mike Jennings is care coordinator at Safe Place Foundation, transitional housing for homeless and near-homeless men. He admitted not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all of them are using the money to simply survive.

"Unfortunately, it's the actions of maybe the few who create the stereotype for everyone," Jennings explained.

Jennings also told us what we see at a glance when we drive by usually doesn't tell the whole story.

"To suggest that someone chooses to be homeless or chooses to be a panhandler is not really an accurate description of the choice they're making, because the choice they're making is really impacted or could be impacted by the condition of their mind," Jennings said, adding that many people who resort to panhandling may be struggling with substance or alcohol abuse.

Jennings said many people who resort to panhandling are homeless, and may feel it's their only option. That's why he's getting involved with local outreach efforts to find people like Dawn, and educate them about assistance programs they might be eligible for. He hopes that will keep them from having to resort to asking strangers for money.

"It's not going to go away by city ordinance," Jennings said. "It's not going to go away by anything other than getting out there and helping these people understand that there's opportunities."

We told Dawn about the city possibly banning what she's doing at the busy intersection she was standing at that day.

"I don't see why," Dawn replied. "There's nothing wrong in doing this. We need help. We need more shelters."

Olson said there are reasons other than safety for the proposed ban.

"What we've seen now is people that have reported trash being left at those intersections," Olson said. "They've reported people using the bushes for restrooms."

Olson said the city of Bettendorf enacted a similar panhandling ban about a year ago and says it is helping there.

Dawn Brouwers, executive director at His Hands Free Medical Clinic, is sympathetic to people begging for money, but she said giving a few dollars here and there is a stopgap solution to a larger problem.

"It's a short-term fix," Brouwers explained. "They'll have that 20 dollars, they'll be able to get more and maybe get a few nights at a hotel, but it's not a long-term solution."

Brouwers said getting people connected to the services they need is the long-term solution.

But Jennings believes if you happen to give money to someone who appears to need it, it's likely that they really do.

"What's wrong with giving you my money and walking away and being grateful that I have the ability to give, versus walking away and thinking, 'you know what? That was a mistake,'" Jennings told us.

For Dawn, a small amount of generosity from one person helps her deal with the responses she gets from others.

"Sometimes they tell me to get a job, sometimes they yell at me and call me names. It's bull. Walk a mile in my shoes before you sit here yelling names at me," Dawn said. We asked her where she would go if she was no longer allowed to ask for money at this intersection. "Iowa City," she said.