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Milwaukee's 'Keep The Change' Program Aims to Discourage Panhandling

Marti Mikkelson
City leaders unveil the Keep the Change program in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Milwaukee residents will begin to see signs around town discouraging them from giving money to panhandlers.  City leaders rolled out the program on Wednesday, called Keep the Change. It’s designed to channel money toward organizations that can help address the underlying problems.

Jay Walia is standing inside the gas station he owns at the corner of 27th and St. Paul, west of downtown. He says the intersection is a hot bed for panhandlers; he sees at least one person nearly every day asking for money.

“They’re not even holding a sign or anything. Basically, it’s to bother the customers while they pump gas or are tending to their own business,” he says.

Walia says customers have complained saying they feel forced to hand over their cash. “Some panhandlers are more aggressive and intimidate purposefully so, some customers feel obligated because they are scared, including me, sometimes I feel unsafe."

The problem got so bad, Walia says, that he started meeting with fellow business owners and city leaders in Milwaukee to come up with a solution. One person he worked with is Ald. Terry Witkowski, who says he’s also noticed a huge increase in people begging for money.

Witkowski says the solution is not regulating panhandling because the courts have frowned on such laws.

“They were mostly unconstitutional. There have been some Supreme Court rulings that indicate that a municipality cannot designate an area where they cannot be, that to stand somewhere in the public right of way with a sign that says anything is freedom of speech,” Witkowski says.

Witkowski started hearing about cities using a program called Keep the Change. So Milwaukee’s trying it by making signs available. “What you should notice is signs in store windows that will look like signs that we will post on streets and parking lots that say 'Keep the Change. Don’t Support Panhandling. Help More by Giving to Charity' and then giving the website of Milwaukee.gov/ktc or keep the change,” he says.

Witkowski says the city will also provide wallet-sized cards that people can give to those asking for money, advising them to call the county’s 211 emergency social services number. The alderman cites data from the Milwaukee Police Department that indicates up to 70 percent of panhandlers are not homeless.

Yet Ald. Russell Stamper remains concerned. “I go down and see young people asking for money because they need something to eat,” he says.

Cindy Krahenbuhl says there would be emergency situations when people desperately need cash, but she doesn’t see many homeless people relying on panhandling. Krahenbuhl is executive director of Guest House, a homeless shelter north of downtown.

“If somebody has found themselves homeless, they may do that for a day or two but if they really want help, they’re going to find the resources and seek them out,” she says.

Krahenbuhl predicts residents will notice a decline in begging because of the new endeavor. Ald. Witkowski says the city may someday expand the program. It might designate certain parking meters people could use to donate to charity rather than give cash to someone nearby holding a sign.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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