COLUMBIA CITY — Columbia City’s Common Council approved the final reading of an ordinance banning panhandling and solicitation from the business and shopping districts last month.
The ordinance was put in place to improve safety, as panhandlers are often located near busy intersections, and because many local residents are being taken advantage of by panhandlers, most of whom are not from Whitley County, according to council members. Some residents have seen panhandlers tossing food into ditches as they leave their panhandling “shift.” Others have seen those individuals frequenting tanning salons.
“If residents truly want to help the homeless, there are safer, more transparent ways to help those in need,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Zartman Romano.
Mission 25, formerly known as The Lighthouse, has served Whitley County for 18 years. The organization transitions displaced people from homelessness into self-sufficiency.
The program began in 2000 and has served 780 people. Rather than a more temporary “homeless shelter,” Mission 25 looks to more permanently impact the people it serves.
“We are not an emergency shelter,” said Director Shawn Ellis. “We have a lot of work cut out for them. We assess all their needs — counseling, substance abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous, their job history. We determine what we need to do to make sure they’re employable.”
Mission 25 aims to dig deeper and find out what made each individual homeless, so homelessness doesn’t happen again when they leave the program.
“Our goal is to help them be self-sufficient,” Ellis said.
Mission 25 has approached local panhandlers and attempted to bring them into the program, but they show no interest. Mission 25 took regular calls from concerned citizens who wished to help the panhandlers.
“Those individuals need help, but do not want the help we provide,” Ellis said. “We have had board members and staff members talk to them — they have zero interest in coming into our program.
“People should understand, the homeless in this county do not stand on a corner, hold up a sign and say they want money.”
Mission 25 works closely with several area agencies, such as probation, the Whitley County Jail, Department of Child Services, Parkview Behavioral Health and the Bowen Center.
Mission 25 requires a minimum of 30 days of residency so all needs can be addressed. In 2016, 41 percent of its residents stayed between 61 and 180 days.
Staff at Mission 25 helps residents address their needs and find a job so they can begin contributing and preparing to live on their own.
“The goal is to have them into their own homes by the time they leave,” Ellis said. “Every client has an individualized case plan so we make sure all needs are being met.”
About 76 percent of residents obtain employment and 81 percent obtain housing before they leave.
Another goal is to prevent generational issues. A parent in poverty may pass issues, or barriers, onto their child.
“We have children coming into the program with their parents and being challenged with barriers because their parents have those barriers,” Ellis said. “We want to stop that trend.”
Ellis made it clear that Mission 25 that every individual is expected to contribute through paying services fees and in other ways. Residents are expected to have jobs.
“This is not a free ride. We’re not enabling anyone in this program. You will pay your way,” Ellis said.
Mission 25 has good relationships with local businesses that provide immediate job opportunities.
“I hope our community hears that — the people standing on those corners are not the people they should be giving their money to. If you want to help, give money to individuals and organizations in our county.”
Romano gave an example of a panhandler who was given a loaf of bread, which was then tossed into the ditch along U.S. 30.
“That loaf of bread would have made a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches for our clients,” Ellis said. “We can have compassion, but just because you have compassion doesn’t mean you invite them to the dinner table. We set clear boundaries with our residents and they do just fine meeting those expectations. There is no reason in this economy that someone cannot find a job. They (panhandlers) are comfortable standing there.”
Local elected officials appreciate the work of Mission 25.
“What this organization does for our community is absolutely critical,” said Mayor Ryan Daniel.
The panhandling ordinance is now in effect. First, panhandlers and solicitors will receive a warning, then a $25 fine, then a $50 fine.