(BLOOMINGTON) - A Bloomington shelter for the homeless is implementing a new code of conduct for residents that bars them from asking strangers for money.
Members of the board of directors for Martha's House say the new policy is designed to help the homeless become self-sufficient. Another policy barring residents from drinking alcohol or using unprescribed drugs while staying at the shelter has a similar goal.
Board member Darryl Neher said the panhandling prohibition is not designed to be punitive, but to create a supportive atmosphere for individuals who are struggling to stay clean and sober.
"Those seeking services at Martha's House want help finding a way out of their situation," Neher told The Herald-Times . "This new code of conduct should not be viewed as a barrier, but as something that will help facilitate that process."
Bob Miller, president of the shelter's board of directors, said he believes that most of the people who panhandle in Bloomington use the money to buy alcohol or illegal drugs.
"Giving them money is like giving them a gun," said Miller, the county's chief deputy prosecutor. "We expect our residents to work toward independence and to not fall into stereotypes by engaging in negative behavior that is counterproductive. And we hope the public will realize they are not doing panhandlers any favors by giving them money."
He said many places in Bloomington offer free meals to the homeless and that it's not necessary to panhandle.
Panhandling done after sunset or before sunrise or conducted in areas including bus stops, near ATM machines or restaurants is illegal and can result in penalties of up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
Miller noted that illegal panhandling is a Class C misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.
State law also bars people from seeking money from people sitting in their stopped vehicles or standing in line, or making people fear for their safety by working in teams, blocking people's path, touching them or making threatening gestures or statements.
Miller said Martha's House residents will be required to sign a code of conduct. Those who violate the no-panhandling promise will be asked to leave the shelter and forfeit their shelter services, unless the shelter manager feels an exception should be made.
"We can't hire a cop to work on our behalf, but if one of our residents is panhandling, we'll find out," Miller said.
Miller said the idea to add the no-panhandling pledge stemmed from a meeting of downtown Bloomington merchants a month ago in which business owners expressed concerns about vagrancy problems.
He said he hopes all agencies that assist the poor and homeless will adopt a similar code of conduct.
"This should be embraced by the entire community," he said. "We as citizens must all agree to not become enablers by supporting panhandlers. Our social service agencies must likewise agree that it is defeating our purpose if we are providing services to individuals who do not conform to a positive code of conduct."
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