David Burton / CC BY

THE BATTLE, this time, began at the foot of a downtown office building.

Just outside the Portland Business Alliance's (PBA) SW Market headquarters, business leaders and nonprofit employees gathered June 17 to announce the latest campaign against the city's panhandlers.

"We're urging people to change their behavior around giving money to people in the street by redirecting it," said Mark Schlesinger, chair-elect of Portland's Downtown Clean and Safe District, a PBA offshoot that pays for security and litter removal in the downtown core.

Instead of going to the sign-bearers panhandling on street corners and off-ramps, Schlesinger and others said, your excess cash should go to social service agencies.

The argument made by the PBA's "Real Change, Not Spare Change" campaign has some sway. Earlier this year, an article in the Oregonian collected the opinions of Portland homeless advocates. Many, though not all, argued giving cash to panhandlers is counterproductive, since there's a chance the money will go toward alcohol or drugs.

But the message is also tired.

For more than a quarter century, downtown business leaders have argued stridently against giving to panhandlers—with little evident effect. As early as 1989, Bill Dickey, then-president of the Downtown Retail Council, accused people who give money to panhandlers of being "as guilty as drug dealers," according to an Oregonian article.

"This is something that has been tried before," says Justin Hufnagel, a spokesman for Sisters of the Road Café. "It may have had a short-term effect, but, if you look around, the need among the community is at an all-time high."

These campaigns are not remotely limited to Portland. In recent months, Chicago, Albuquerque, Syracuse, and other cities have announced similar initiatives—most of them spearheaded by downtown business groups who don't want shoppers bothered or uncomfortable.

There is one novel part of Portland's latest effort, though: It comes with data.

From August 2013 to August 2014, the PBA paid two Transition Projects workers to walk Downtown Portland, dolling out surveys to the panhandling population. It's doubtful the results would stand up to scientific scrutiny, but the 188-person survey offers a snapshot of what panhandling looks like in the city's core.

"The purpose wasn't so much scientific validity," says Tony Bernal, development director at Transition Projects. "They really went and talked to anybody who would talk to them who was panhandling downtown."

The results run contrary to some of the narratives that have been peddled over the years. For instance, they suggest 38 percent of people use panhandling money for alcohol, while less than one-third said they buy drugs. That's far less than the "nine out of 10" panhandlers officials told the Oregonian would use the money for drugs or alcohol back in 1989.

In fact, the PBA's data show the most common purchase was food (79 percent of those surveyed), followed by cigarettes (76 percent). About half of the panhandlers said they spend the money on bus or MAX tickets.

Also of note: The vast majority of people panhandling (70 percent) were homeless Portlanders, the PBA's data suggests—not the "travelers" who take up so much emotional bandwidth when it comes the city's struggle with homelessness.

"To the extent the facts bear out anything," says Bernal, "that's what they bear out: People are from here."

The biggest takeaway, though, is that people don't have many options even if they'd like to stop bugging you for change. Of 76 panhandlers (41 percent) who told the outreach workers they'd like help from social services agencies, 72 had to be added to a wait list.

"We have people ready and willing to get into treatment, or accept training, or get into housing," says Lynnae Berg, executive director of Downtown Clean and Safe. "How can we challenge people's generosity to leverage the money that's being given so it goes to service agencies?"

One glaring hole in the PBA's data—at least what it would share with the Mercury—is that it doesn't offer any sort of context for how much Portland panhandlers make, making it unclear how much money the organization hopes to leverage. (Researchers typically agree that panhandlers don't make much.)

The social services agencies partnering with the PBA on the fresh campaign say they're not expecting a windfall.

"The money piece was almost irrelevant to me," says Eric Bauer, executive director of the Portland Rescue Mission, one of three organizations attached to the effort. "My advocacy for it is that it could help raise awareness of the need, more than just money."

In fact, money isn't always an easy fix. Without more affordable housing, more jobs, and higher wages, social services say they're stuck fighting an unwinnable war. (Case in point: Transition Projects recently got new money for year-round shelter beds from the City of Portland, but its wait list is actually months longer these days.)

And the PBA's conviction isn't shared completely by its partners—neither Bauer nor Transition Projects' Bernal take a hard line against giving money to panhandlers.

"I think it's your own moral choice," Bernal says. "Certainly we encourage you to give to agencies as well."

Which means the concern about giving to panhandlers is largely coming from the PBA, a group that's trying all it can to get homeless people off the sidewalks of downtown. The group was just rebuffed when it attempted to convince Portland officials to roughly quadruple the number of downtown sidewalks where people aren't allowed to sit during the day.

"I don't think it's any big secret they have a vested interest in the economic health of the neighborhood," says Hufnagel, of Sisters of the Road. "Not necessarily the human health."