HelpCOS aims to improve giving, reduce panhandling

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Hold that five dollars. Giving to panhandlers can do more harm than good, service providers say, 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.”

As of June 18, HelpCOS had 11 donations totaling $170, according to Cindy Aubrey, president and CEO of Pikes Peak United Way.

Skorman said while he hopes donations will pick up, the campaign is really more about education.

The city is “very intentionally focusing on the education portion of the campaign, which we hope will cause a noticeable change in behavior,” said Jamie Fabos, chief communications officer for the city of Colorado Springs, in an email.

“The reason we’re not aiming for a dollar amount is because we know people may just as likely donate directly to one of the local agencies, such as the Springs Rescue Mission. While we can’t measure that, it too is a sign of success as we’ve changed behavior by encouraging people to give more effectively and to those who are truly in need.”

The HelpCOS.org website had received 1,300 views as of June 19, Fabos added.

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.”

It also means generous donors won’t unwittingly support an addiction or give to those who aren’t in need, Roalstad said.

“I think there’s a fear that some individuals who are panhandling aren’t necessarily homeless and they’re looking for an easy way to earn a buck, so they’re flying under the radar,” she said. “There’s also a concern that some individuals who panhandle are using this to fund, maybe, substance abuse. And that doesn’t feel good if you know you’re giving someone five bucks and they’re going to go buy a pint of liquor. I think those are some of the downsides of giving directly to an individual.

“We know from our work that at least 20 percent of the chronically homeless individuals do have substance abuse issues — and when your life is precarious, it’s hard to make good decisions that can move you forward towards goals. So we would rather stabilize individuals and help them move forward than to keep them in a perpetual state of crisis, which can happen when they’re living on the streets.”

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.

“The purpose of the HelpCOS campaign primarily is to help educate the public on how they can give more effectively,” Phelps said.

“The purpose is not to ban panhandling — the panhandling is protected by the First Amendment. We’re just encouraging people that if they want to help, there’s a better way to give, and that way is to donate directly to service providers. … Another goal of the campaign is just to spread awareness of all of the amazing service providers in our community and the important work that they’re doing.”

Skorman said city council wants to make sure that people in need are getting in touch with agencies that really can help them.

“There are some people out there who are homeless, who are on the streets panhandling, who really just don’t want help,” he said. “And if they don’t want help, we’re not sure we want them to feel so welcome in the city.

“You want to be able to help people — you don’t necessarily want to enable them,” he added.

Roalstad said in a year or two, she hopes to see that HelpCOS has been able to “raise money in the community that will fund organizations that have been vetted by the Continuum of Care, and [that] it really shows that a $5,000 or $10,000 grant made a huge difference in their programming.

“Five or ten thousand dollars to a program like [Homeward Pikes Peak] could fund a year’s supply of bus passes so people can get to doctor’s appointments and AA meetings,” she said. “In another program it could mean the difference of having a part-time advocate for families, or a mentoring program for families exiting homelessness. Nonprofits are very thrifty and creative when they receive funding — and then we show our donors how we’ve put that money to good use.

“I really hope that people glean from this that there is a lot of coordination and collaboration among service providers and that we are in this with our sleeves rolled up,” she added. “I think that there’s an attitude that no one’s doing anything, and I really hope that the HelpCOS campaign shows this network of support that is in the trenches, working on it.”

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