BLOOMINGTON — Instead of giving money to panhandlers on the street, downtown Bloomington merchants are urging people to place that change in collection boxes at their businesses.
It's part of the Change to Make a Change initiative that came out of several community discussions after a May incident when someone poured tar on a downtown bench frequented by a homeless man.
"It was kind of the eye-opening moment that woke us all up to the fact that we all share this world together and that this city center belongs to all us and what we can be doing in positive ways to make a difference," said Tricia Stiller, who served as Downtown Bloomington Association executive director before recently becoming the city's downtown development division manager.
"I don't know who did that. No one approved of that, and I don't want this to turn into 'downtown hates the homeless' because that's really not what it was," said downtown business and property owner Doug DeLong.
"I do think it was maybe a turning point where people realized that it's easy to say, 'Boy, I wish we could get rid of this problem,' but treating people like that is not the way we wanted to do it."
"We just wanted to do something about people aggressively panhandling," DeLong added.
Stiller anticipates the program will be up and running by the first of the year, if not sooner.
"This is a proactive campaign to address panhandling in our community," she said. "This is one step in an ongoing conversation to ease the discomfort of life difficulties such as homelessness."
"This is a collaborative effort," she added. "Our downtown merchants want to provide their patrons an opportunity to be helpful in a way that is positive ... rather than responding to someone who perhaps might approach you in the street."
Donations to the Change to Make a Change campaign will be distributed among local service providers "who are already in the trenches doing such good work," said Stiller.
They include PATH and the Salvation Army.
"We're excited for this partnership and we like to to see them being proactive," said Angie Bubon, development director for Salvation Army of McLean County that operates a homeless shelter in the downtown area.
"Not only is it an opportunity for fundraising, but it's also an opportunity for education and advocacy," she added.
After the bench incident, an initial group of five or six merchants grew over several meetings to between 20 and 30 downtown property owners, business owners, retailers and residents.
"It was a learning process for us," said DeLong. "This has been an ongoing issue with the downtown and no one knew what to do. We researched this and found that while there used to be laws against panhandling, most of them have been struck down (by the courts) because they are unconstitutional. You, as a U.S. citizen, have the right to ask another citizen for help."
The Change to Make a Change idea came about through learning that other cities are using the concept to address panhandling, he added.
"All of us are a little uncomfortable when someone asks us for money. We don't know whether to give them the money. We don't know if we are enabling them or whatever," said DeLong.
"So the idea was that by giving money to a group we know, it is going to help them. We can still give money, but we aren't increasing the problem of panhandling by just encouraging it basically with giving people a dollar or two every time we see them."
In addition to participating in community dialogues, DeLong, a graphic designer, put together materials, including a brochure to be given to the homeless with information about where they can obtain services to get help.
He also designed a logo for stickers that participating merchants will place on their windows, denoting they are locations where donations can be made.
"These funds can help us make sure that we don't have to cut services," said Bubon. "We are not just a place for (the homeless) to stay. We are a place for them to get help and support in job training, and we help them find housing. By donating to this campaign, you will be donating to those efforts."
The Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter, at 601 W. Washington St., can house up to 40 men and 18 women. In the winter, spaces in the building are converted into additional warming centers to provide beds for up to 80 people.
Home Sweet Home Ministries, which is nearby but not downtown, also provides housing and services to the homeless.