By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
Get our mobile app
ROCKFORD — Alan Fagerstrom has seen the generosity and the risk that comes with panhandling on the city’s street corners.
The 78-year-old U.S. Army veteran said motorists have stopped to give him food, cash and even clothes. Others have been rude, rolling down their window as a tease only to speed it back up when he approaches. One even tried to tried to hit him with a car door, he said.
“The money is in peaks and valleys, and right now it seems to be a valley,” he said Friday while panhandling near the intersection of East State Street and Alpine Road. He had a sign that said he was a veteran in need of help.
More news: Here’s a look inside a decaying former factory in southwest Rockford that’s on the verge of redevelopment
“There’s a lot of addicts that are out here. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs,” said Fagerstrom, who served in Vietnam and South Korea and said he started panhandling to help a girlfriend who was struggling. “Not all panhandlers are bad people. There’s some who are out here for legitimate reasons.”
Fagerstrom was soliciting charity about quarter mile from one of the city’s latest efforts to combat the practice: a roadside billboard that implores people to “give better.”
There are three such billboards scattered throughout the city near spots where panhandlers frequent. The others are near East Riverside Boulevard and Park Ridge Road by the Rock River and at Charles Street and Alpine Road. The billboards ask you to “say no to panhandlers and yes to local nonprofits” such as Carpenter’s Place, the Rockford Rescue Mission and Shelter Care Ministries.
“We’re really trying to educate the community about long-term change,” said Abby Finley, marking and communications director at Rockford Rescue Mission. “We don’t believe anybody should have to stand out on a street corner and ask for money. We want to see more for that individual. We want them to feel like they don’t have to do that because they are able to get out of that tough situation they’re in and live a better life.”
Cost and communication
Related: Loves Park prohibits walking in roadway medians as a public safety precaution some say targets panhandlers
City officials and local nonprofits have tried to curb the practice. Signs were installed in medians where panhandlers often walk that say the practice isn’t safe, and the Rockford Rescue Mission has encouraged its donors and supporters to hand panhandlers only essentials such as food and water along with its Get Help Cards, which are the size of business cards and provide information on resources for long-term help.
“The reality is Rockford has so many services available to individuals with a wide range of need,” Finley said. “This is just one way for us to communicate the services available to individuals with a very specific need.”
Earlier this month, the city bought billboard space in the three areas at a cost of $10,500 for a roughly two-month campaign.
“We hope the return on the investment is people are giving smarter, and they’re giving smarter by providing those dollars to nonprofit organizations that are recognized by the state of Illinois, that have a board of directors, that hire experts in those fields, that can help someone not just for that minute on the street corner but for the rest of their lives,” Mayor Tom McNamara said.
The billboards are just one part of the city’s messaging, which also included the signs in medians, public service announcements and posts on social media.
“We want to be there to help them,” McNamara said of panhandlers. “Let’s give better so that we don’t just help them for that day, we can help them change their life.”
The city’s biggest effort is the roughly $2 million spent in the past year on homeless prevention efforts.
“Our health and human services team are out there every single week. We know almost all of them by name,” McNamara said on Rockford on the Record, a video interview show hosted by Wally Haas, opinion editor emeritus of the Rockford Register Star. “We know nearly all of them by name, we know where they live, we know why they’re doing it, we just can’t get them to the point where they’re willing to accept help.”
Fagerstrom said the city could have better spent the billboard money to help panhandlers in a different way. While some people have pointed the signs out to him, he doesn’t think it has curtailed donations.
“I don’t think they’re worth the money they spent to put them up,” said Fagerstrom, who said he had previously been sleeping in his truck but now had a place to stay.
Buying billboard space is a rare move for the city. Laura Maher, the city’s director of communication and strategic initiatives, said it was the first time the city has done it in her 5 years working with McNamara’s administration.
The $12 difference
The city has turned to the public awareness campaign because, after the panhandling ban was struck down, it feels changing the way people give is the best way to stop the practice. McNamara said some panhandlers resist other forms of help because they feel they’re making enough money in handouts. The more you give to panhandlers, McNamara said, the longer the practice will continue.
“We’re really fortunate in Rockford that we have people who care so much and want to help, but we need to direct them to give those dollars better.” McNamara said.
A donation of roughly $12 to the Rockford Rescue Mission can provide a person with a meal, a shower, a night of shelter and other guidance from Rescue Mission staff. McNamara and Finley say that goes a lot further than $12 to one person would.
“Giving to nonprofits in the area is contributing to that long-term holistic change in a person in a way that $12 being handed out a car window can’t,” Finley said.
She said it’s difficult to calculate the return on the city’s investment in the billboards, but she said it is critical to get the message to people in Rockford. Panhandlers, she said, deserve to be treated with dignity, but there are better ways to help them than handing over cash.
“It can be uncomfortable being approached by a panhandler, but just realize they’re people too and they’re going through a hardship in their lives that has gotten them to the point where they feel like they need to panhandle,” Finley said. “We want more for them. We want them to live a dignified, happy, healthy life.”