Nicollet Mall redesign brings scrutiny upon panhandling

A $50 million redesign of Nicollet Mall is currently in the planning process, with construction work set to begin as soon as next year and finish by the end of 2016.

But with downtown building owners expected to pay for about half of the project via assessments, the Downtown Council is talking openly about quelling "livability" issues like panhandling (and homelessness, but we'll focus on that another time) that make downtown a less attractive destination for investors, shoppers, and potential residents.

See also:
Minneapolis street homelessness down as Duluth approves Homeless Bill of Rights

In a report entitled "Nicollet Mall's next obstacle: Panhandlers," Finance and Commerce's James Warden writes that downtown officials are taking on panhandling and homelessness "for humanitarian reasons and because tenants and property owners worry that it makes business more difficult."

We got in touch with Mikkel Beckmen, director of the office to end homelessness for Hennepin County, and asked what he thinks about the scrutiny panhandlers are under ahead of the Nicollet Mall redesign and rebuild.

"It's been nice that the city -- including City Attorney Susan Segal -- have said, 'We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem,'" Beckmen says. "There's no interest on behalf of Hennepin County to arrest ourselves out of this problem."

At any given time there are about 200 people panhandling in the city, according to Beckmen.

"The question becomes, what could be done to lessen the impact of panhandling?" Beckmen says. "When we've asked the St. Stephen's street outreach workers to interview panhandlers, one [finding] is that it's really degrading -- 'I'd rather not be doing this.' Most folks who are on the street don't panhandle because they can't bring themselves to do it."

On the other side of the coin, Beckmen says, "People who give to panhandlers, they feel bad and are having a visceral reaction to someone who is distressed and needs help."

Beckmen points out that the Downtown Council's efforts include the Give Real Change initiative, which asks people to "Say 'No' to Panhandling and 'Yes' to Giving" to organizations devoted to ending homelessness.

In general, panhandlers report that they'd rather be working than begging. "So some of our strategies as a committee related to panhandling and street homelessness is to create some employment opportunities and meaningful daytime activities," Beckmen says.

We asked Beckmen if there's any tension between organizations like his and business interests in downtown Minneapolis when it comes to issues surrounding panhandling and homelessness.

"I haven't had any pushback," he replies. "Ultimately people want to do stuff that's effective. What other cities have done in other parts of the country where they've criminalized homelessness and other behaviors, it just doesn't work."

"It doesn't make sense to clog the county court system with people who are going to come back and be out on the streets again," Beckmen continues.

But if all else fails, the Minneapolis Police Department does maintain a list of chronic offenders who are barred from being downtown for a variety of reasons. At the end of last month there were 39 people on the list. To see pictures of all of them along with a brief description of their offenses, click to page three.

With regard to that list, Beckmen says, "My recommendation when I first started was not criminalizing livability crimes."

(For more, click to page two.)

"For people who are being arrested for livability crimes, [my recommendation] was to try to get them into housing programs," Beckmen says, adding that a Hennepin County program diverting chronic livability offenders out of the criminal justice system has been "pretty effective."

Ultimately, Beckmen says one of the most effective ways to deal with panhandling and homelessness is to build relationships between outreach workers and people on the streets. On that score, Beckmen says he hopes St. Stephen's will find funding to significantly increase the number of outreach workers it can employ.

"I was just walking down Nicollet Mall with a manager of our street outreach team and he knew everyone," Beckmen says. "We stopped and talked to a young man who was panhandling, but he's moving out of town soon and reuniting with family after he's gotten his life back together. I think part of [outreach workers'] job is to build relationships."

"I think it'd be great if the downtown community expanded street outreach because there's so much benefit," he continues. "Engage people, let them know where they can go to get help. A mix of private and public funding would support that [outreach team expansion]. Any downtown community that wants to thrive should have a permanent outreach component, and cities that do that tend to have less visible street homelessness."

To see the city of Minneapolis's list of offenders who are barred from downtown, click to page three.


Downtown Mpls Restricted List

Send your story tips to the author, Aaron Rupar. Follow him on Twitter @atrupar.