Sept. 30, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 3

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    Vouchers help needy obtain basic necessities

    Citizens, churches, merchants and the University have joined together to address the problem of panhandling on the streets of Hyde Park.

    In July, the volunteer South Side Commodities Exchange began selling vouchers, each worth 50 cents, at local businesses and churches. The vouchers are intended to be given to panhandlers in lieu of cash. Vouchers can then be redeemed at local merchants in exchange for food, clothing or services.

    The vouchers can't be used to buy alcohol or tobacco or be redeemed for cash. The goal of the voucher program is to help people who are in need of basic necessities while at the same time reducing the amount of money available on the street for the purchase of drugs or alcohol. "We want to encourage thoughtful, community-minded responses to people in need because we are aware of the interwoven issues of safety, civility and poverty," said the Rev. Susan Johnson, minister of the Hyde Park Union Church and coordinator of the street-voucher program.

    Although people complain about panhandling and businesses say it drives away customers, Johnson said panhandlers keep coming back to the neighborhood because Hyde Park is a very generous community. "It is obvious that panhandling in Hyde Park pays off --if that weren't true, then these people wouldn't be here in the first place," she said.

    The idea for a voucher program surfaced in the summer of 1992, Johnson said. Panhandlers seemed to be becoming increasingly aggressive, and that spurred a negative backlash from businesses. To find more constructive ways of dealing with the problem, several community meetings were held--first to discuss panhandling and then to propose a solution.

    The voucher program is based on successful models in Berkeley and Seattle, as well as a program on Chicago's Near North Side. Chicago Shares, a community voucher program, began operating nine months ago, and the Hyde Park program is now operating in collaboration with this downtown cousin.

    One way in which the Hyde Park program differs from the voucher system in downtown Chicago is that in the Hyde Park program an auxiliary fund has been set up. Individual donations and money generated from vouchers that are sold but never redeemed will be used for pre-employment training, a job-placement service and, eventually, for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs at area shelters.

    Johnson said the organization is also working toward starting a regular publication that would be dedicated to "serious journalistic investigation of the more entrenched, insoluble problems," as well as publicizing the job program and providing a forum for public discourse and communication.

    She said that the program is necessary because Hyde Park is not an isolated community but part of a larger residential community that includes the rest of the mid-South Side. "People expect that somebody else solves the problems," Johnson said. "We can't afford to live like a suburb--we're faced day to day with the kinds of problems other people read about in the newspaper."

    Concerns that a voucher program might actually attract more panhandlers to the area have not been realized in either Seattle or Berkeley, where voucher programs have been in place for one and two years, respectively.

    Johnson also pointed out that panhandlers are not necessarily homeless people. "There are a lot of people who are clinging to shelter, using money for rent in lieu of gas for cooking or money to buy food. We have a lot of people who are in very marginal situations," she said.

    The South Side Commodities Exchange will be seeking ways to address the needs of these people through the donation program, she said.

    Vouchers are sold throughout Hyde Park at churches and bookstores, and they are also available on campus at the Divinity School Coffee Shop, the Community Service Center, Reynolds Club and the University Bookstore. To date, the most prolific vendor has been 57th Street Books. Since the program began operating in July, this bookstore has sold about $200 worth of the vouchers, according to assistant manager Lawrence Rocke. "I think it's a good idea and it's worth the effort, but it really depends on everybody participating," he said.

    Omar McRoberts, Coordinator of the University Community Service Center and a fourth-year College student, said he hopes the program will "humanize the interactions between members of the University community and homeless people." The Community Service Center operates as a networking facility, hooking up the University community with other volunteer organizations in Hyde Park and in Chicago.

    Johnson said the South Side Commodities Exchange is an all-volunteer effort and is always looking for more people who are interested in helping out. Volunteers are especially needed to act as liaisons with merchants--distributing and collecting vouchers--and to help recruit more businesses into the program. Writers and cartoonists are also needed to fill the pages of the new publication.

    At the present time, more than 20 merchants and 15 religious communities sell or redeem the vouchers. Merchants accepting the vouchers for payment include such businesses as Mr. G's, the Hyde Park Co-op, Pizza Hut and Woolworth's. Johnson said she'd like to see such services as haircuts, shoe repair and laundry become available to people using the vouchers as more merchants agree to participate.

    Bill Gerstein, owner of Mr. G's, said, "I have a very positive feeling about the program because I feel it's a good way of dealing with panhandling on the street. It's a more humane way of dealing with the problem than forcing people off the street or ignoring them."

    Johnson said that although the program has been criticized by some as a means of dictating how a panhandler should or shouldn't use money, it's important to note that the voucher program is only the beginning.

    "I want Hyde Park, as a community, to act responsibly," she said. "This is a start--a little start--but I think it's a significant one. This is not a solution at all to homelessness or panhandling. This is one small step that allows people to act with reasonable compassion when a need is presented."