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Just Say No: Knoxville asks people to donate to outreach organizations instead of giving to panhandlers

Signs downtown ask you to donate to United Way of Greater Knoxville instead in order to fund outreach efforts to help people experiencing homelessness.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — The City of Knoxville is teaming up with United Way of Greater Knoxville to combat panhandling. The goal: help those with a true need.

If you've been in the area lately you might have noticed the new signs encouraging people not to pass out money to panhandlers. The city said it's not asking you to withhold money from people in need, but instead it's asking you to make sure your money gets into the right hands. 

If you see one of these signs, you can scan it with your phone to donate directly to United Way of Greater Knoxville -- an organization working to solve the big picture problem.

“It appears anecdotally that there has been an increase in that activity in the downtown area,” United Way President and CEO Matt Ryerson said. “Our immediate instinct is if I give this person $10 with the thought of, 'I am helping this person.'”

United Way’s research, however, shows it tends to do more harm than good, creating a certain dependency. 

“If somebody can get X amount of dollars by panhandling downtown, that really lends the support they need to do that on a continued basis,” Ryerson said. 

People who panhandle, he said, often need help beyond what’s provided to them on the streets. 

“The majority of the people you experience panhandling probably have been struggling with some sort of addiction and or a mental health issue," he said. 

Homeless people are not the same as panhandlers. City Homeless Programs Coordinator Michael Dunthorn said understanding the difference is key to a solution. 

“Panhandling and homelessness can overlap, but not all panhandlers are homeless,” he said.

It’s the panhandlers that are homeless that the city is trying to help. Knoxville has partnered with the United Way of Greater Knoxville to make donating easy with the new scannable signs around downtown and the Old City.

“The best way to help those folks is to help the agencies that are there to end long term situations and get them housed,” Dunthorn said.

To learn more or to donate to United Way of Greater Knoxville, click here.