NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A "Keep the Change" program in the Seattle suburbs of Arlington and Marysville is encouraging citizens to walk away from persistent panhandlers. Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring says it is an effort to curb complaints and stem safety concerns.

"There are places to give the money where it will truly help the needy," Nehring told reporter Rikki King of the Everett Herald. "What we're trying to do is essentially stop the subsidization of the drug and alcohol habits for some of these folks who stand out there."

The mayor claims the panhandlers are making up to $90 a day begging for change while standing just a short distance away from the local food bank. Panhandlers are a common sight in cities across the nation, especially during the holidays. With begging burgeoning on city streets, freeway ramps and busy intersections, municipalities are working to strike a balance between public safety and compassion.

The U.S. Department of Justice published a guide for police in dealing with panhandling and says that contrary to common belief, panhandlers and homeless people are not necessarily one and the same.

"Many studies have found that only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless," the report states. "Most studies conclude that panhandlers make rational economic choices–that is, they look to make money in the most efficient way possible. Panhandlers develop their 'sales pitches,' and sometimes compete with one another for the rights to a particular sales pitch. Their sales pitches are usually, though not always, fraudulent in some respect."

However, a recent survey of panhandlers in downtown San Francisco revealed that the typical street beggar was a disabled middle-aged single minority male making less than $25 per day, panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. The study said 82% were homeless and 94% used the money they raised for food.

The Coalition for the Homeless says there were 52,400 homeless people sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system as of September, 2013 – an all time high that included 22,100 children.

While the debate continues on whether a donation to a street beggar is wise or not, city governments, businesses and law enforcement are all struggling to meet the challenges of a growing street population.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet