Joseph R. Paolino Jr.: Let’s talk to all the Providence panhandlers
Since February, when Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza made the decision to refrain from enforcing the 2002 City Council ordinance on aggressive panhandling, I have been very vocal about the panhandlers in downtown Providence.
By all indications, there are more panhandlers on the streets of downtown since this decision was made. By all indications, panhandlers have become more aggressive in approaching people for money in the past few months.
If people don’t feel safe downtown, they will stop coming here. And if they do stop, the impact will be felt by downtown merchants, restaurateurs, entertainment venues, hotels and businesses in general. Existing businesses will suffer, and new businesses and visitors will give a thumbs down to downtown.
Last summer, the mayor, in collaboration with FirstWorks, started the very successful PVDFest in Kennedy Plaza. Paolino Properties was proud to help contribute to PVDFest’s triumphant debut. The mayor exhibited vision in reaching out to the amazing amount of creative talent that we have right here in our city and our state. The area was alive with vibrancy, art, music, dance, food — and people flocking to Kennedy Plaza to enjoy the festivities and the city itself.
But the area was not alive with the panhandlers and the homeless, because the mayor — knowing that part of hosting a popular event is creating an environment in which people feel safe — made sure that they were prevented from being anywhere near the PVDFest site.
I am sure that the city will do the same thing when PVDFest enlivens downtown this year, June 2-5.
Someone has to champion a cause, and a course of action, that will help the panhandlers and the homeless and propel the safety of downtown at the same time. My suggestion is that the business community in downtown Providence take a leadership role in this effort by banding together to hire a social worker whose only responsibility will be to work in concert with the Providence Police Department and Crossroads Rhode Island’s caseworkers in speaking — individually — with every person downtown who is panhandling, homeless, or who needs help.
Right now, the Providence Police Department’s manpower stands at 413, down from 494. And Crossroads Rhode Island has just two caseworkers who cover the entire state. So a social worker hired with funds from the business community would go far in complementing the efforts of the Providence police and Crossroads to provide people with the help they need. Food. Medical assistance. Transportation to shelters. Assistance in overcoming addictions. Job training and jobs. Linking people up with the state’s Department of Human Services, Department of Labor and Training, and other agencies and valuable resources.
I propose that the social worker funded by the business community work five days a week, year-round. Teamed with a Providence police officer, he or she can speak to every person panhandling. Every person sleeping on a park bench, or crouched in a doorway, or carrying all his personal belongings in a sack or on his back. Every person freezing on a snowy day or who needs relief from a blazing sun. Every person appearing to need help or asking for help.
This would be a vital partnership between the city and the downtown business community that can make a profound difference in turning lives around.
This is not a complicated mission. Our downtown is small. But we can demonstrate that the hearts of our business community are large. Giving panhandlers loose change on the street is not the answer. Hiring a social worker to do outreach on our streets is.
Joseph R. Paolino Jr. is managing partner of Paolino Properties and a former mayor of Providence.