Flagstaff, Arizona, Is Giving Panhandlers Coupons to Stop Them from Buying Drugs

Flagstaff, Arizona, is trying to combat panhandling by giving homeless people coupon booklets called "Better Bucks." I tried them out to see if they were all they were cracked up to be.

|
Oct 7 2014, 7:45pm

All photos by author

Like many cities, Flagstaff, Arizona, is home to a sizable homeless population. In the past, local police dealt with anyone “loitering to beg” by simply arresting them and sometimes tossing them in jail (which, all things considered, is not the best way to deal with homelessness). This happens fairly often: Between 2012 and 2013, an estimated 135 people were placed in handcuffs for bumming change.

In June 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 77-year-old woman who got thrown in jail for asking an undercover cop for bus fare, and a federal judge subsequently ruled that the law unconstitutional. But the court decision only seemed to increase the panhandler populace, according to Flagstaff Police Sergeant Margaret Bentzen, so the cops were forced to get creative. They teamed up with Shadows Foundation, a local nonprofit that financially assists people with life-threatening diseases, and came up with Better Bucks.

Here's what that is: Instead of giving cash to your friendly neighborhood panhandlers, you buy a booklet of five $1 vouchers to hand out. The program claims you can “give without enabling” because the coupons can’t be used to purchase drugs, medications, tobacco, or alcohol. You also can’t buy things like spray paint, cologne, mouthwash, or hair spray, since those products can also be used to reach an altered state. As Vicki Burton, the president and founder of the Shadows Foundation, explained, “We’re hoping that [if] we get people to give the vouchers and not the cash, we’ll pull the substance out of the hands of those using it for the wrong things."

I decided to try them out for myself. The locations to buy Better Bucks weren’t well publicized, but I was eventually able to purchase a booklet from the UPS Store next to a Walmart. I asked the cashier if she’d been doling out many Better Bucks, and she told me she'd given out about $100 worth and the store was restocked three times. She said she thought it was helping a lot.

In addition to the vouchers, the small, glossy booklet contained a free, all-day bus pass and contacts for local assistance services such as shelters and food banks. Each coupon was watermarked to prevent fraud and was valid at one of six stores: Bashas’ Grocery, Flagstaff Farmers Market, three gas stations, and Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers.

“You can only use one voucher book at a time, per person, per transaction," Burton told me. "So you can’t go out and panhandle these and walk into the store with like six of these Better Bucks books and go grocery-shopping. Not going to happen.”

I went out to see how aware homeless people were of the program, but I wasn’t able to find many people who appeared to be living on the streets, despite hours of driving all over town and walking throughout the small downtown area. Wheeler Park was corralled off for some reason, and the only two people who looked remotely down on their luck were sleeping. I decided to leave them alone.

Most people I talked to claimed they’d never heard of Better Bucks. One person scoffed, “The Monopoly money? I haven’t gotten any,” then told me he’d had a long day and wasn’t interested in answering my questions. Everyone else gave me blank looks. Another man, who had no idea what I was talking about, described himself as more of a "gypsy traveler" than "homeless," and pointed to his heart: “I live in here.”

I also met Davie and Crystal, two hitchhikers from Delaware. They had only been in Flagstaff for a few days and hadn’t heard of the Bucks, but they were holding a sign that said, “Smile! At Least You’re Not Broke.” Davie told me he’d been traveling for years and came through Flagstaff because the money is good here. The couple was saving up for winter clothes to survive the cold.

Many homeless people in Flagstaff are just passing through or visiting from the nearby Native American reservations. If these people are drifters, wouldn't Better Bucks encourage them to stay in town? And would they even want something they can’t use on the next leg of their journey?

At Sunshine Rescue Mission, just south of the tracks, I spoke to Ken Repkie, the shelter’s assistant director. He said he knew very little about the program, but hadn’t seen many people with Better Bucks. I asked what he thought of them.

“I think it’s a great idea. They can’t buy alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes.” Ken laughed, holding up a smoldering cigarette.

Next, I contacted the businesses that supply Better Bucks. Merle Norman Cosmetics, which gives the booklets out but doesn’t accept them, was closed. I spoke to a cashier at Majestic Mobil, who told me he had plenty of people who purchased the Bucks, but so far only one person brought them back in. All he bought were cupcakes.

“Personally, I think it’s a very interesting scenario,” he said. “Boss really likes it. I think it kind of attracts the wrong crowd.”

Kelly Wagner, the manager at Flagstaff Farmers Market, was out for the day, but when I called him later he told me they’d sold about $30 worth of Bucks. Kelly said this was a great start, as they’d only been participating about two weeks. (The only person who used them so far had bought some fruit.)

Then there was Freddy’s. The manager, who asked to remain anonymous, also said she’d only seen a few vouchers come through. She explained the reason Freddy’s was taking part in the program was because they’ve done several fundraisers with the Shadows Foundation in the past.

The average combo meal at Freddy’s costs between $8 and $9, which was more than the Better Bucks would cover. The manager admitted this, adding, “Most of our meals are over $5. However, we will not put [an age] limit if someone wanted to order a kid's meal.”

Disappointingly, when I contacted several of the services printed on the booklets, I found that many of the phone numbers weren't in service. The Catholic Social Services sounded like a fax line, the American Legion listing was a non-working number, and the Community Service number beeped twice, then disconnected.

Finally, I decided to use the Better Bucks myself, to see what I could get with them. I went into Bashas’ Grocery, and asked Adam, an employee, about the program. He said to read the sign they posted—that’s all he knew. I asked if he’d gotten many. No, Adam said, but they were slowly seeing more.

In the aisles, I grabbed a soda, some gummy worms, and a stick of deodorant. I also added mouthwash, because I knew this item was on the no-no list. I told the frazzled young cashier, Kate, that I was given the Bucks—careful to emphasize "given." She looked embarrassed and stopped making eye contact with me. The people in line behind me awkwardly shuffled. Maybe I was just imagining things.

Kate asked another employee for help because she wasn’t sure how to ring up the coupons. I purposely attempted to purchase more than $5 worth, just to see what would happen. The leftover 75 cents wasn’t waived, so I had to use change. But I was able to get the mouthwash.

This was less of a "gotcha" investigative trope and more of a simple experiment to see whether the program is working for the people who buy them, the people who use them, and the businesses that accept them. There are problems, naturally: The program is new, so few people have any idea what it is or how it works, including many of the homeless who are supposed to pay for things in Better Bucks. Giving the Bucks out instead of cash also feels vaguely paternalistic, like I'm handing out condescension with my spare change. Truthfully, you shouldn’t just give money to the homeless—you should also give direction. Do a couple barely working phone numbers count as direction? 

Burton claims the response she’s gotten to Better Bucks is phenomenal. As more businesses come on board, and more people begin using them, I don’t doubt it could have a positive effect. It's certainly better than locking the homeless up. I’m left with something Burton told me as we ended our phone call: “Is this a perfect program? No. Is it something that could be? I think we’re on the right path. You have to start somewhere.”

Follow Troy Farah on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels