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Panhandling pays well as Madison cracks down on begging

By Theo Keith,
Published On: Nov 19 2012 09:59:15 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 12 2013 01:46:39 PM CST

Panhandling in Madison can be more lucrative than the jobs of many people who donate, a WISC-TV investigation revealed.

Madison officials, citing the need for increased safety and tourism, have banned panhandling throughout the downtown business district and other areas of the city. They've issued some citations since Sept. 27, when the ordinance went into effect, but said the practice continues.

WISC-TV went undercover for two and a half hours Nov. 9, first on the corner of Gammon and Watts roads and later at Gammon and Odana roads on the city's far west side. An employee posed as a panhandler, and donations received during that time included $80 in cash and change, a box of granola bars, a banana, pizza and a soda.

In total, the money and food obtained equaled $36 an hour, or more than $70,000 a year without paying taxes. The money, plus a matching donation from WISC-TV, will go to the Salvation Army of Dane County to help with the agency's family shelter program.

Madison police said they weren't surprised by the amount of money made, and their concern was where professional panhandlers' earnings would go.

"People can come up with some pretty compelling reasons to need your money," said Lt. Dave McCaw, whose district includes State Street, where the city has targeted problem panhandling.

McCaw broke panhandlers into two categories: those who are actually homeless and need the money, and people who sometimes have houses and jobs and prey on generous members of the public for spending money.

"For the problem people, as soon as they have enough for what they're going for, whether it's a bottle of vodka or a rock of crack, they're off getting those and then perhaps coming back," McCaw said, adding that some are violent felons. "These people have (criminal) histories, and some more frightening than others."

Madison police have issued 12 citations under the new ordinance, which also bans panhandling within 25 feet of intersections, liquor establishments and ATMs.

McCaw said panhandlers who need to satisfy addictions will resort to other means to get cash quickly, and police are watching break-in statistics in the downtown area. So far, there hasn't been a noticeable change, McCaw said.

Police and the leaders of charitable organizations urged Madison residents to give to charities that provide meals and shelter to the homeless.

"Madison is Madison -- we're compassionate people, and we want to help if we can," McCaw said. "Part of the change will need to be the public understanding what the problem is, and redirecting their compassion."

Porchlight Inc., the Salvation Army and the YWCA are three organizations that help low-income people in the community. The organizations can be contacted at these phone numbers:

  • Porchlight: 608-257-2534
  • Salvation Army of Dane County: 608-250-2240
  • YWCA: 608-257-1436

Editor's Note: This is part one in a two-part WISC-TV series on panhandling. On "News 3 at 10" Tuesday, WISC-TV will tell the story of two mothers who are homeless and are trying to provide for their children.

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