Giving cash to panhandlers can do more harm than good — and the new HelpCOS campaign is promoting a better way to give.
Launched May 31 by the city of Colorado Springs in partnership with Pikes Peak United Way, HelpCOS recognizes increasing frustration at panhandlers on the streets, doubts over how they use well-meant handouts, and questions over how they’re being helped.
HelpCOS offers Springs residents a text-to-give system, so they can donate in about the same time it takes to hand a bill through a car window — but with confidence that their money will go to vetted local service agencies that provide shelter, meals and essential services for homeless and needy people.
Central to the campaign is the HelpCOS.org website, designed to educate the public on effective ways to give, whether through money, items in kind or volunteering. The website also lists services available for those in need.
Three weeks in, the campaign is drawing a “very positive response from shopkeepers and from people that see the signs,” said City Council President Richard Skorman. “People are really happy that we’re doing something, and the hope is that they’ll see less aggressive panhandling in downtown and Westside and places where they’re concentrated.”
Using the campaign’s text-to-give system, people can text HelpCOS to 667873 and donate via the United Way portal. All income from the HelpCOS campaign goes to Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a consortium of local service providers offering services tailored to the homeless community’s needs.
It means when people are moved to give, those dollars go further to help those who are really in need, Skorman said.
“It will help if people give money more directly, because a dollar you give to an organization really goes a lot farther than a dollar you give to a person,” he said.
“Many of the people downtown or Old Colorado City and even on the highway exits who are asking for money say they’re hungry — and that we know not to be true. Between Marian House, Springs Rescue Mission, and Care and Share, really there’s a tremendous amount of effort to get people food. … [P]eople aren’t hungry; they’re not starving to death,” he added. “Do they need the $5? Some people probably do, but most people are probably using it for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes.”
Skorman said the campaign could help reduce aggressive panhandling while improving resources for those in need.
“We get a lot of complaints from business owners and people downtown — people who are afraid to come downtown anymore because they just feel like they can’t walk a block without being approached half a dozen times,” he said. “So the hope is to change the culture of giving in order to make it safer for people to be in places that they may want to enjoy, but also make sure that the money is more directly going to help people.”
The HelpCOS.org website had received 1,300 views as of June 19, according to Jamie Fabos, chief communications officer for the city of Colorado Springs.
Beth Roalstad, chairwoman of the PPCoC, said the campaign grew out of growing concerns about — and growing visibility of — homelessness, as well as questions about whether people are getting the services they need to escape homelessness and find housing.
“The HelpCOS campaign is to raise awareness that there are a plethora of service providers that are coordinated and are working together, shoulder to shoulder, every day to address the needs of this population,” Roalstad said.
“When contributions are given to individuals on street corners, it may fix a very small short-term need for that individual — it could provide a cup of coffee or a meal or contribute to maybe an overnight stay at a hotel — but those are really short-term fixes. If we want to end this problem for our community, we need collaboration and financial resources at a larger scale that could have a bigger impact.”
Andrew Phelps, homelessness prevention and response coordinator for the city of Colorado Springs, said education is at the heart of the HelpCOS campaign. The public education campaign, including videos, social media assets and posters, has been designed to inform Springs residents about the inefficiency and potential hazards of giving to panhandlers, while redirecting generosity to local service providers, according to the HelpCOS website.
Skorman said similar programs had been highly successful in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Learn more about HelpCOS in the June 22 edition of the Business Journal.