The Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa Crime Stoppers are discouraging Tulsans from giving cash to panhandlers, even as those experiencing homelessness may be more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There are thousands of organizations in this city with -- just wanting to help as much as possible," said TPD Maj. Mark Wollmershauser Jr., on a Tuesday virtual town hall organized by Tulsa Crime Stoppers also attended by city councilor Lori Decter Wright.
"But what's keeping that from happening -- and I know, because it tugs at my heartstrings as well to see sometimes people that are really struggling -- but handing out cash on the side of the road? Then there's no reason to go actually receive those services," Wollmershauser said, encouraging concerned citizens to donate to homeless service organizations if they feel so moved.
Wollmershauser said TPD can enforce municipal ordinances against stepping into the road to receive donations, and that criminal ordinances exist that can be enforced against individuals who pitch tents on public property.
He said that beyond individuals' wellbeing, there are additional reasons the police department may want to make unhoused people less visible.
"Public safety is tied with economic viability," Wollmershauser said. "If we can get people that are struggling with homelessness, struggling with drug addiction, off of the corners and making it look like there's one on every corner, and actually get them the assistance that they need, then it also beautifies the city and increases economic viability for the city."
Karen Gilbert, executive director of Tulsa Crime Stoppers, agreed with Wollmershauser's recommendation against giving money to panhandlers using a wildlife metaphor.
"We know that if you keep feeding the bears, the bears aren't going to go away," Gilbert said. "So not giving them cash money that they're asking for on the street corner is great advice."
Rhene Ritter of the homelessness advocacy and service agency Housing Solutions, and its multi-agency collective effort A Way Home for Tulsa, said Gilbert's comparison of those experiencing homelessness to animals was "an unfortunate way to refer to fellow citizens."
"They are our neighbors, regardless of whether they have a place to call home," said Ritter.
According to Ritter, there is no verifiable data that homelessness has increased due to the pandemic, but it may be more visible as shelters have been forced to reduce capacity for virus-related reasons.
She also said she doesn't know of data concluding one way or the other on whether direct giving or institutional donations are ultimately more helpful for homeless individuals, and that advocates don't recommend individuals be removed from public locations unless they have another place to go.
"Our shelters are full, especially with the pandemic decreasing the numbers we're able to serve," Ritter said.
"There's no place for people to go."