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Feature

Matthew Ayers

Matthew Ayres, a graduate of the U's College of Education and Human Development, wants to help homeless people find safe and stable housing.

Street wisdom

U alum finding way to help the homeless

By Brigitt Martin

From eNews, February 21, 2008

When University of Minnesota alumnus Matthew Ayres started surveying Minneapolis panhandlers in February 2007, he hoped to get a clearer picture of those who solicit cash to survive. Little did he know that his work would help fuel a hotly contested civic argument. "It's a livability issue," says Ayres, who won the U's Mark S. Umbreit Scholarship for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking for 2006-07. "Every year when the good weather starts, panhandling becomes an issue because people can once again see the homeless." Ayres conducted street interviews with 45 sign-toting panhandlers--36 men and 9 women--during his final semester of the Master of Social Work program at the time, when he was employed as a part-time intern at the Office to End Homelessness (OEH). Meanwhile, the Minneapolis City Council began debating amendments to its already strict panhandling ordinance.

Ayres and Cathy ten Broeke, program coordinator for OEH, which is jointly funded by the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, reacted quickly by tabulating the survey responses to inform the council members' discussions. "We felt that strengthening the ordinance would create an air of hatred and distrust of homeless people," explains Ayres.

The Minneapolis Panhandling Survey is the first comprehensive survey of a panhandling population in a community in the United States. The subjects ranged in age from 22 to 76, with an average of nearly 6.5 years since their last permanent housing. Ayres found a clear correlation between the length of time the person had been homeless and how long they had panhandled--in contrast to arguments that panhandlers are not homeless but rather are aggressive scam artists. When asked if they would choose a job that pays $6.15 per hour over panhandling, 27 of those surveyed answered in the affirmative, while 5 said they were unable to work.

Ayres feels his research provided some rather surprising insights. "I guess, like everybody, I assumed that these guys were hardened by a life on the streets. But many of them became teary when I talked to them, and most of them felt that panhandling was demeaning, demoralizing, and something that nobody should have to do," says Ayres.

Ayres and ten Broeke shared their survey results with council members Ralph Remington, a co-author of the ordinance changes, and with Cam Gordon and Elizabeth Glidden, both of whom voted against the ordinance.

"The changes to the amendment related to verbal solicitors, not sign carriers, who were the subject of Matt's survey," Gordon explains. "However, the survey helped bolster my case by showing that the ordinance was an ineffective way to address the homeless population, many of whom have psychiatric and substance abuse issues. Outreach is the best way to help them, and the ordinance was moving in the opposite direction."

Though the ordinance passed 9-3, Ayres explains, "Our success was that the debate changed from being about the homeless panhandler on the corner to the aggressive guy who is making people truly uncomfortable."

The new ordinance bans people from asking for money within 80 feet of an ATM or entrance to a financial institution; within 50 feet of parks, sporting facilities and the Minneapolis Convention Center; and within 10 feet of crosswalks, convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores. The ordinance also prohibits people in a group of two or more from asking for money and does not allow solicitation at night. But it doesn't apply to people who have a sign and are passively sitting, standing, or performing.

Since graduating, Ayres has become a full-time program analyst at the Office to End Homelessness, and an on-call staff member at Simpson Men's Shelter in Minneapolis. At the OEH, Ayres and ten Broeke are spearheading the implementation of a 10-year plan to end homelessness, called Heading Home Hennepin. They also organize Project Homeless Connect, a program designed to link homeless people to the services they need.

"Homelessness is what I'm the most passionate about," Ayres proclaims. "I wake up on Saturday morning thinking about how we can best help these people get out of shelters and into safe and stable housing."