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Monday, November 9, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vouchers For Panhandlers Disappear -- Few Coupons Redeemed In Capitol Hill Program

A couple of mysteries are playing themselves out on Capitol Hill:

-- What happened to the panhandlers?

-- What happened to the vouchers?

The panhandlers began appearing several years ago. The vouchers first appeared in August, the idea being that people would give the 25-cent coupons to beggars, who would use them to buy food, not booze.

Joe Rogel, owner of the Deluxe 1 Bar & Grille at 625 Broadway E., said the problem has been that panhandling represents an enormous conflict in values.

On one hand, a person who doesn't give may feel guilty.

On the other, it's widely acknowledged that most panhandling money goes to buy alcohol or drugs; Rogel quotes police studies putting the figure at 90 percent.

A workable compromise seemed to be the voucher system.

"It's a sort of salve-your-conscience thing," says Rogel, a founder of the voucher program, known as "Caring Neighbors."

The vouchers cost 25 cents each and are for sale at more than 40 businesses in the Capitol Hill area.

About the size of a credit card and decorated with little pictures of a bus, a bowl of soup, a bar of soap and a washing machine, they also bear the words: "Not good for alcohol, tobacco, cash. Non-negotiable. No change given."

Curiously, though, since the voucher plan began, about 8,000 - $2,000 worth - have been sold but only about $350 worth of them have been turned in, often to such places as fast-food outlets.

"They may be accumulating. At 25 cents apiece, it takes awhile to build up enough," to get a sizable meal, said Rogel.

It's also possible that since many of the vouchers have been sold in blocs to merchants, they're mostly sitting in cash-register drawers, waiting to be distributed.

Regardless of the mystery of the disappearing vouchers, the number of panhandlers in the Capitol Hill area does seem to have decreased.

Rogel said the word is that many have moved to the University District, which he acknowledged may be merely a displacement of the problem.

"It's a Band-aid," said Rogel, adding that no one seems able to solve the problems that led to the panhandling in the first place.

The executive committee of Caring Neighbors is to meet Thursday to decide whether to continue the program, but Rogel and Catrina Gregory, project coordinator for Caring Neighbors, expect it to continue.

At one of the businesses distributing the vouchers, the Hadassah nearly-new shop on Broadway, Michele Charvet added that other steps have been taken to try to expand the philosophy and execution of the voucher program.

Those include setting up tables at Seattle University and QFC supermarkets to try to get more citizens to buy and carry them.

"People seem receptive," she said.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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