Ron Soto is confident that panhandling has become a less significant issue near his Main Street store in recent months, but he still wants to raise public awareness regarding the possible negative ramifications of giving to people on the streets.
Soto, the owner of Soto’s Optical and the president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, announced the beginning of a SDMA campaign to discourage panhandling Thursday. Called Downtown Cares, the program will place donation boxes in 36 downtown businesses to raise money for homelessness service providers.
The goal is to educate the public about the risks of direct donations to panhandlers, Soto said. The boxes include cards that state studies indicate 93% of the cash given to people on the street is spent on alcohol, drugs or other illicit activities, echoing a claim made by Robert Marbut, a homelessness consultant hired by the city and county last year.
Money gathered by the downtown businesses will go toward the Salvation Army, Resurrection House and Harvest House, Soto said. A sign posted on Main Street near Soto’s Optical also discourages panhandling, a tool effective enough that Soto is ordering three more to install throughout the downtown area.
All in all, Soto said, progress has been made in reducing panhandling downtown. He hopes that, through the Downtown Cares campaign, even more of the public is made aware of the potential problems stemming from the handouts.
“It is way less (of a problem) than it was six months ago,” Soto said. “We’re on the right track.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected].