Unfortunately Downtown Memphis is a hotbed for panhandlers, people who approach you and ask for money.  You shouldn’t let them stop you from coming down and enjoying all that Downtown has to offer, but you should know who they are and how to deal with them.

I strongly recommend that you DO NOT give money to panhandlers. Two reasons for this:

1) Most of the panhandlers are not homeless. Rather, they take advantage of people’s sympathy and generosity toward the homeless. You are not helping the homeless if you give to a panhandler. More than likely you are enabling an alcohol or drug addiction by doing so.

Many of the panhandlers seen day in and day out Downtown are professional panhandlers. Over the years they have developed and refined their stories, and they can easily make more begging than they would make at a minimum wage job. One Commercial Appeal story showed a photo of a guy who had made $13 in a half hour of begging. That’s $26 an hour, tax free… makes you wonder why you bother getting up to go to work in the morning, doesn’t it?

If you want to give money to help the homeless, it’s much more productive to give it to one of two organizations Downtown that do a lot of good work to provide assistance to those in need: The Memphis Union Mission and the Calvary Street Ministry.

2) You expose yourself to danger by taking out money in public. Some of the career panhandlers are constantly in and out of jail; a few are convicted felons. By taking out cash to give to a panhandler, you’re putting yourself at risk to be robbed.

If not money, should you give food to panhandlers? It’s your call, but my recommendation is “no” on this one as well. On any given day there are between two and five churches and organizations that serve free meals in Downtown Memphis. Those truly in need should be able to ask around and find those locations fairly easily. Giving panhandlers food means that they don’t have to spend their own money on food, which means they have more money for their alcohol and drug addictions. If you really want to do something to help them, some items you might want to give include socks, toiletries, and phone cards.

What should you do if approached by a panhandler? The best thing to do is to avoid eye contact, say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” and continue walking, never breaking stride. Be sure to walk in well-lit areas. If a panhandler threatens or intimidates you, call 545-COPS and report it.

Panhandling in Downtown Memphis is regulated by city ordinance. Panhandlers must have a permit to be able to beg. Even with a permit, panhandling is illegal after sunset, in groups of two or more, at bus or trolley stops, or in an aggressive or intimidating manner. This includes using profanity or following after you after you say no.

Fed up with Downtown Memphis panhandlers? There’s an online forum called Handling-Panhandling where you can discuss the problem. The forum has over 200 members, including Downtown residents, business owners, police representatives, and employees of civic organizations such as the Center City Commission. Forum members can post their stories and frustrations. They can also upload photos and descriptions of panhandlers who have been known to cause problems in the area. In a few cases this has led to panhandlers’ arrests for various other crimes (car parking scams, car break-ins, and in one case aggravated robbery). You can join here. You’ll be asked to explain why you’re interested in joining and what your experiences with panhandling have been.

Panhandlers often develop “stories” or “gimmicks” to get money.  Here’s a list of the most common panhandling gimmicks in Downtown Memphis.

Some of the panhandlers’ favorite spots to beg in Downtown Memphis:

  •  The area bounded by Peabody Place, Beale, Front, and Second:  People park here to go to Beale Street or the Orpheum or other nearby spots.  Panhandlers like to charge people to park in metered spaces, and run fake lot attendant scams.  By far the #1 problem area Downtown right now.
  • Second between Monroe and Linden:  Second is full of restaurants and bars, and it’s full of tourists as well.  The “tour guide” gimmick is very popular for panhandlers in this area.
  • Union between Riverside and Fourth:  For the same reasons as Second.  Also, the Greyhound bus station is on Union just east of Third, so this is the first street new vagrants see when they arrive here from other cities.
  • Main and Madison:  Because there’s a liquor store on that corner.  They like to camp out in front of Walgreens.  Walgreens management, by the way, is doing everything they can to chase away the panhandlers, and shouldn’t be blamed for the problem.
  • Main between Jefferson and Adams:  Because there’s a store that sells beer on that block.  It’s astonishing that owners of the Claridge House condos on that block put up with this; it’s got to be depressing their property values.
  • Court Square:  A beautiful urban park which happens to be full of bums yelling, arguing, drinking and urinating.  One block to the beer store and liquor store mentioned above.