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Beer And Cops: How Arizona Businesses Are Dealing With Panhandlers

panhandler in Cottonwood
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A panhandler stands next to stop sign on a public sidewalk at a strip mall in Cottonwood.

It’s a common sight across the Valley: people standing on street corners or outside businesses asking for money. Panhandling can create a challenge between protecting both a person’s free speech rights and a retailer’s investment. Two Arizona communities are taking on the challenge in different ways.

Beer in Tempe

Inside Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant on Mill Avenue in Tempe, head brewer Gary Fritze opens a stainless steel container revealing a mash agitator. The mash is a blend of malted barley and water that resembles a huge tub of cream of wheat.  

“Then we create our wort, which is the sugar solution that will become beer,” Fritze explains.

He calls it a typical brew day, but what Fritze and two other Mill Avenue brewers, from Blasted Barley and Pedal Hause Brewery, are making is unique— something they call Mill’s Mission IPA.

Beer to help the homeless? “We will have tapping parties for fundraising purposes,” says Paul Galvan, general manager of Gordon Biersch. “Basically, we’re putting our money where our mouth is."

Galvan is a big supporter of a recently enacted ordinance that prohibits sitting and lying down on public sidewalks in Tempe. City council members approved the ban after business owners complained panhandlers were scaring off customers. But those same merchants also said they wanted to help and that’s where Mill’s Mission IPA comes in.

The MIll's Mission campaign will launch with a tapping party from 4-10 p.m. on Thursday, July 14, at Gordon Biersch Tempe. Galvan says $1 from every pint of Mill's Mission sold at local bars and restaurants will go to the non- profit Downtown Tempe Authority, which will then disperse the money to social service agencies who work with the homeless and others in need. They include:   I-HELP Program, Tumbleweed Young Adults Program, CARE 7Community Bridges and The Salvation Army.

“We’re really sensitive to our citizenry and how we grow our city, I guess is the best way to put it,” Galvan said. “We want to be desirable, we want to be viable, we want to be relevant and we can’t do that if we’re not addressing those folks who need our help, we just can’t do it.”

The Downtown Tempe Authority will plan future events where a percentage of sales will be donated to the Mill's Mission campaign. Custom t-shirts will also be for sale at the Authority's office and other downtown locations with 100 percent of sales expected to support the non-profit agencies. The group hopes to raise $100,000 over the next year.

Cops in Cottonwood

More than 100 miles away in Cottonwood a man who only identified himself as Robert stands on a public sidewalk next to a stop sign at a busy strip mall.

“This is not a regular business for me,” he says. “This is just a desperate way to get home.”

Robert says he and his wife are trying to return to Yuma after a trip to Albuquerque for a job that did not pan out. With a brown bag and red gas can at his feet, Robert holds a sign that reads, “Please can you help with tire, food, gas. Trying to get home.”

“I’ve been right here about two to three hours,” he said. “To tell you the truth, it’s not too good.”

A couple months ago, Robert could have probably gotten a lot closer to people, but since the police department launched its “ Safe Shopper” program, many panhandlers have moved on. 

Here’s how the program works: business owners grant officers the authority to cite people for trespassing any time they’re engaged in inappropriate behaviors on private property. 

Police Chief Steve Gesell says trespassing is a misdemeanor under state law, “That gives us the ability to compel someone to get services or face jail time.” 

Not far from where Robert is panhandling, Rob Harrison is stocking the shelves at Susie Q Market, a store that’s been in the family since 1973.

“As a business owner that’s your main concern— that they’re going to cause you to lose business,” he said. “I do know it happens. I’ve had customers tell me it happens and I’ve had them come in and tell me. Especially females, a lot of times say, ‘Hey, this guy just came up to me, startled me and asked me for money and he wouldn’t go away.’”

Patrol Commander Jody Makuch manages the Safe Shopper program. “The people that are panhandling are typically people that are just taking advantage of the community’s goodwill or supporting some habit,” he said. 

Makuch says officers have come across people who paint inaccurate pictures of their circumstances. 

“In one instance it was a gentleman with an oxygen mask with tubing that didn’t go to an oxygen tank. It just hung down by his thigh,” he said. “And, then on another occasion there were two young ladies that had a stroller with a baby doll in it rather than a real baby asking for assistance.” 

Chief Gesell says they estimate 95 percent of panhandlers in Cottonwood are not homeless.

“When you perpetuate that type of enabling environment, the community doesn’t benefit at all and in most cases I would say that it loses,” he said. “If you want to give, don’t do it here. Give to social service agencies that have the structure, the case management to help people transition out.”

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.