Revamped Coins for a Cause program continues effort to curb panhandling in downtown Great Falls

Coins for a Cause 2.0 is in full swing and the new boxes are up in the downtown.

The program started in Great Falls in 2012 with collection buckets at businesses around town for shoppers to drop their spare change instead of giving it to panhandlers downtown. The boxes are new this year and are attached to lightposts around the downtown.

There’s a misconception, according to members of the Downtown Safety Alliance, that the downtown panhandlers are homeless.

The overwhelming majority of pandhandlers downtown have a place to live, but panhandle to buy alcohol or drugs, according to Adam Hunt, an officer with the Great Falls Police Department who focuses on the downtown.

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The funds collected in the Coins for a Cause boxes are pooled annually and donated to an organization that provides services to the homeless and transient population.

Past recipients include the Great Falls Rescue Mission and the Great Falls Community Food Bank.

In 2017, the program raised $348.63 and the funds were donated to the Great Falls Police Department to be put toward the new seasonal volunteer program.

Hunt said that last summer he cited a woman for having an open container of alcohol in public. She was with a group of people and they were all intoxicated.

Hunt said he asked the woman how many beers she drank a day. Her response was 30 beers per day. The rest of the group said they drank about the same.

How do they get the money for the beer at $2.50 each, Hunt asked. By panhandling, they told him.

The woman he cited lived downtown, was not homeless and was able to make about $75 per day by panhandling. That’s $27,375 annually she’s making by panhandling. If 10 people are doing the same thing, that’s more than a quarter of a million dollars annually that people are giving to panhandlers to purchase alcohol, Hunt said.

Panhandling is legal in Great Falls, but if someone walks up to a car in a public street to ask for money, that’s illegal, though difficult to cite, Hunt said.

Recent court cases have deemed panhandling a type of free speech.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, that government regulations curtailing free speech have to be as narrow as possible and must fulfill a “compelling government interest.”

The case involved a local ordinance restricting where signs for religious services could be displayed, but the ruling has had wider implications.

Great Falls made changes to its sign code as a result of the ruling.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an ordinance in Slidell, La. requiring a panhandling license was unconstitutional.

The ACLU brought the case on behalf of three panhandlers in Slidell and as a result the Slidell ruling and other court rulings, cities nationwide have been repealing or amending their panhandling laws.