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Panhandling Battle ... Unsubtle Diplomacy

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After putting his cup out along Sixth Avenue next to the Duquesne Club on Aug. 3, Elvis Jefferson (left) had an unwelcome neighbor: a Pittsburgh "Safety Ambassador" being paid $9.50 an hour to convince passers-by not to give Jefferson money.

 

It's one aspect of the new Safety Ambassador program created by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which sends nine people out in the streets with walkie-talkies, cell phones and pamphlets to "address quality-of-life issues" such as graffiti and panhandling, according to PDP Chairman Tom Grealish.

 

Jefferson, 46, says he is a recovering alcoholic with depression who works that corner every day before catching a bus to his Wilkinsburg personal-care home, where his monthly Social Security payment leaves him just $40 after the rent is paid. He panhandles in another part of town as well.

 

The ambassador, Paul (last name refused), was handing out a flyer headlined, "The more you give change, the more things will stay the same," which urges passers-by to donate to Downtown churches that help the homeless, instead of to people like Jefferson. Paul finds many takers, such as this young woman (photo 2).

 

"We expect this to continue as long as this is a successful strategy," says PDP Vice President Jonathan Cox, who oversees the program.

 

The Safety Ambassadors program is funded by a $200,000 federal grant and Downtown property assessments. The ambassadors are employed by Block By Block, a division of a Louisville, Ky.-based security firm, Brantley Services.

 

 The ambassadors tested the program on the streets beginning July 1 and officially debuted on Aug. 10. "I think it's getting pretty effective," says Paul about his efforts. "People thank me for doing my job."

 

Jefferson estimates his take is down by about a quarter since the Ambassadors program hit the streets. He now averages $30 a day, $10 less than what he used to fetch. "They're doing their job; they've a right to do it," he says, after he is passed by this pamphlet-reading pedestrian (photo 3). "But ... they are trying to discourage people from doing what they want to do with their hard-earned dollars."

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