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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/07/anti-panhandling-ordinances-should-offend-our-moral-conscience/

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Anti-panhandling ordinances should offend our moral conscience

It’s not an easy way to make a living. Do we have to make it even harder? (Photo by Flickr user C Tanti; used under Creative Commons license)

It’s not an easy way to make a living. Do we have to make it even harder? (Photo by Flickr user C Tanti; used under Creative Commons license)

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods,” preached the great 4th-century church father John Chrysostom, “is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.”

One shudders to think what Chrysostom and the millennia-long chain of moral witnesses of which he was a member, from the Prophet Amos to Dorothy Day, would declare in response to West Michigan’s recent outbreak of anti-panhandling proposals. Thoughts of Dante’s vision of the fourth circle of hell are not out of place.

As unnecessary as this reminder ought to be, it apparently needs repeating that standing outside with an arm outstretched and a shabby cardboard sign during the dark days of winter or the height of summer is not pleasant. Asking total strangers for a dime, a quarter, or a dollar is often humiliating, especially when one hasn’t had access to basic hygiene or a fresh set of clothes in weeks. Imagine if you can a father of four, down on his luck with unemployment benefits exhausted and no new prospects on the horizon, shot through with shame as he begs from a man who used to be a classmate or a woman who used to teach his kids.

These people are not invisible, and attempting to make them disappear from the streets of Grand Rapids or the corners of Norton Shores through heavy-handed ordinances won’t make them any less tired, hungry or desperate.

Some might object here with the usual litany of caricatures of beggars: They are alcoholic, aggressive, diseased, deceitful, loud, lazy or worse. But so what? Does a human being lose their dignity and right to live because they are flawed? If so, then Heaven help us all. Although it is undeniably true that many of those who are reduced to begging suffer from a range of social, physical, and psychological afflictions, should that not move us to deeper compassion? Should that not compel us to offer aid whenever we can? No, a dollar here or a dollar there won’t fully relieve the plight of the poor, but it may make the unbearable bearable just long enough for some to find the steady, reliable assistance they need before their arduous time on this earth expires.

Others will no doubt say that while they do not personally object to being asked for change, there is a legitimate public-safety hazard which needs to be addressed. Perhaps that’s true in some instances, though it is far from clear how imposing onerous restrictions on panhandling will address it. In the rare circumstance where a beggar becomes threatening or violent, there are already generally applicable rules to address such behavior. Similarly, extant laws already allow private businesses to stop solicitation on their premises, so what’s the problem? In the end the problem isn’t public safety, it’s about keeping up appearances.

To the bourgeois consciousness, panhandlers are an embarrassment. They are walking, talking urban blights whose very existences shatter the illusion of broadly attainable petty prosperity and easygoing, unserious living. In other words, they ruin the “vibe” of a mob anxious to quaff overpriced and overrated microbrews downtown before strolling over to the latest faux ethnic eatery. Contemporary democratic society, after all, is predicated on the fashionable delusion of “equal opportunity” where unconstrained competition for education, status and jobs is meant to guarantee the common good. A poor man plagued with tooth rot and hepatitis C doesn’t fit easily into that enchanting, but fictive, narrative.

Beyond this, the fact of the matter is that anti-panhandling laws are, by and large, unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals – which covers Michigan – last year ruled that broad-blanket laws intended to restrict begging violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. Proponents of the recently suggested anti-panhandling rules argue that because of their ostensibly narrower concern with issues of public safety, rather than banning public begging altogether, it is likely they will pass constitutional muster. Maybe or maybe not.

Mayoral concern over a potential lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, coupled with public outcry, were sufficient to stay the cold hand of Grand Rapids city commissioners from banning begging in a city long known for its deep Calvinist Christian roots and “conservative social values.”

Of course panhandling is not the decisive answer. No one who is compelled by circumstances to engage in the practice would embrace that route over steady employment or, absent that, consistent care from well-directed charitable initiatives or meaningful public assistance. While contemplating the particulars is far beyond the scope of this article, there should be no doubt that we as a society, both in Michigan and throughout the United States, need to thoroughly rethink our economic order – one that pools a vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while leaving so many with not enough to scratch out anything close to a living worthy of someone who holds citizenship in a modern, first-world country.

A sad and desperate plea for an infinitesimal amount of our disposable income hurts. At best, it hurts the conscience, dulled as it often is by the rapid-fire transmission of banalities over Facebook or boutique dabblings which barely last longer than the time it takes for us to tweet about them. The poor will always be with us. Let us not gloss glibly over that reality with the laws as constitutionally suspect as they are immoral.

Gabriel S. Sanchez is a researcher and writer in Grand Rapids. His latest book, "The Principles and Practice of International Aviation Law," was just published by Cambridge University Press. For brunch, Gabriel is partial to a tall glass of tap water with no more than two ice cubes.

26 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Paul R

    many years back i remember being hit up for a donation by a panhandler on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. it was was right in front of Cartier’s. what a wonderful juxtaposition of having a beggar outside a store that was selling watches for $5000. i thought all stores that sell such luxury items should be required to have beggars in front of them just for balance. i will admit not all my encounters with panhandlers has been pleasant but i recall an essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer where he pointed out in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man our Lord never says much about Lazarus only that he was in need. Bonhoeffer suggested maybe Lazarus had made bad choices or was rude to the wealthy man but that would not change in the least the obligation he had to Lazarus and his fellow men.

  2. ***

    I have never been any closer to a street beggar than from inside my car at a stop light, it is kind of intimidating to have them holding the sign and me trying to avoid eye contact.

  3. Drew

    Local panhandlers HAVE been offered steady employment. They will not go to work. People have tried offering real help. They have also been caught lying over and over about their circumstances. Maybe you should try actually helping them out instead of writing from an ignorant moral high ground. You might have an argument concerning constitutional law, but people hate being lied to. It is also disturbing to watch them turn down steady employment. I do not respect people who lie and are able bodied but refuse to work to earn their place in this world. That is why we get sick of seeing them. They are a distraction from those who are in real need and do not lie to get what they need.

    1. Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Drew,

      There are so many things wrong with your ranting paragraph that I don’t even know where to begin, but I’ll do my best.

      First, how could you possibly know that local panhandlers have been offered steady employment and refuse to go to work? How many of them have received offers? How many have refused? Is there a study I can look-up to confirm your apodictic statement or am I just supposed to take your sweeping declaration on faith?

      Second, how do you know they are lying about their circumstances? Which ones? How many? All of them? You’re generalizing here based off commonly held prejudices without constructing anything close to a coherent or empirically supported argument. At best you may know a few anecdotes concerning a few panhandlers. Even if the anecdotes are true, it is a fallacy to then apply it to beggars and poor people as a class.

      Third, how do you know what I do with respect to poor people here? How do you know I don’t help them? What a strange, strange accusation to make.

      Fourth, who is this “we” in your statement concerning those who are sick of seeing panhandlers? Because that “we” certainly doesn’t include yours truly, nor anyone with a soul. While I am sick of seeing poverty, I am not sick of those human beings who are impoverished. There’s a difference.

      And last, how are panhandlers distracting from those “in real need”? Your statement assumes that if someone is asking for money on the side of the street, they must not really need it; how does that follow?

      If you can dial-down the ridiculous generalizing and think through the problem a bit, I’d be interested to read some thoughtful responses to these questions. Thank you.

      1. John Q. Public

        Right back at you, Mr. Sanchez….

        How do you know people asking for money find it humiliating?

        How do you know they haven’t had access to basic hygiene or a fresh set of clothes in weeks?

        How can you possibly speak to the “bourgeois consciousness”? Even if you have a few anecdotes based on the rich people you know, how can you in good conscious attribute that thinking broadly to an entire class of people?

        How do you know that “No one who is compelled by circumstances to engage in the practice would embrace that route over steady employment or, absent that, consistent care from well-directed charitable initiatives or meaningful public assistance?” Is there a study I can “look-to” or am I supposed to just take it on faith?

        There’s more, but you get the drift…I think.

        1. Gabriel S. Sanchez

          John Q. Public,

          The only drift I am catching is your inability to make distinctions between an article with a series of analytical claims drawn from reason and experience and the rantings of an individual who attempted to capture the whole of reality around panhandling with a series of gross stereotypes. Also, nothing I have written claims that there aren’t exceptions. I imagine, where there are folks who are engaged in “scamming” (as some here have intimidated), they do not find the practice at all humiliating. Clearly though they weren’t the subject of this piece.

          Besides, “bourgeois consciousness” refers to an outlook, not a predefined number of persons who hold that outlook. Your weak rebuttal would gain some strength had I, for example, said, “All persons living in Cascade Township have a ‘bourgeois consciousness.'”

          Nice try, but try again.

          1. Mr. Me

            Look around lansing folks. Look at those shoes they are wearing. Have you seen their neat air cuts? How about that cell phone in their hand and the IPOD ear plugs in their ears. And right downt he street are several help wanted signs. I for one keep going by them, paying them no attention.

          2. John Q. Public

            Oh, NOW I understand. Your own opinions are based “analytical claims drawn from reason and experience” and Drew’s are “the rantings of an individual who attempted to capture the whole of reality around panhandling with a series of gross stereotypes”.

            You can point out the mote in his eye, but that doesn’t diminish the beam in yours.

  4. hairman

    I believe they are organized. You see the same ones at the same time on the same intersection. No squabbling over who has what location at what time. Their area is littered with debris. They SIT on locations or some sleep. They do NOT attempt to clean up the area around them.
    THEY ARE LAZY AND AN EYESORE. We are striving to be a 3rd. world country and it looks as if we are already there.

  5. sue

    West Michigan has a charitable heart and a moral conscience. St Vincent’s, Cherry St services, Catherine’s Health Care, Degage, Bridge, Senior millage, west mi food bank, my parish has free food and clothing for anyone, no joining or evangelizing obligation.Santa Claus girls, Servants Ministry, yesterday there was a free fun event at the vet’s facility funded by a local group with plans to take vets to some Tigers games. The more I write, the more I think of.
    My point is to say-instead of giving a dollar here and there, donate to a church, charity etc that will help those who truly need a hand up.
    Perhaps view the discussion regards panhandling laws as an attempt not just to”pretty up” the town but to dry up the monies to get people to accept real help e.g. job training, addiction treatment, mental health counseling. All of which is available thru our direct donations and/or taxes.
    In truth no matter what there will always be a hard core that will be there. But for those who want a hand not a handout, it will be available, thanks to west Mi heart and moral conscience.

    Maybe look at the discussion

    1. Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Sue,

      Nothing in my piece suggested or implied an either/or between giving money to beggars on the street and donating money, time, or talents to charitable institutions. In fact, I spoke up about the work of the latter in this very article. My point was that anti-panhandling laws are an affront to basic morality, not that giving to panhandlers is the sufficient and exclusive course of action we ought to take with respect to the poor.

      A point which I should have stressed in the article is this: Panhandling is conducted by more than just the perpetual poor; sometimes it is a necessary means to a very immediate end. For instance, I have been asked for money by people who are short a quarter or two because they need to get on the bus. Under these anti-panhandling rules, that’s potentially a criminal activity now (depending on where they ask, etc.). That’s not such morally repugnant; it’s absurd.

  6. Rich

    Large cities in Florida have studied the panhandling culture. The local newspapers report that rather giving money to the panhandlers, it is better, as Sue says above, to donate to the charities who will try to cure addictions, get training and jobs for them, etc. the truth is that many do not want any help, but would rather continue to beg for money for drugs or alcohol.

  7. John S.

    There’s need to retain and attract middle class residents in order to stabilize the property tax revenue stream. That will not happen until the millage is cut. Whatever is taxed there will be less of. Property assessments are too high. The millage is sky high. Many middle class city residents who owned houses in the city figured out that they were getting soaked and when property values in the suburbs plummeted during the Great Recession (making houses there more affordable) they sold or abandoned their houses in the city and moved to the suburbs. A nice effect of cutting the millage will be an increase in property values.

    City of Detroit
    33.4984
    Wayne County
    7.9220
    Wayne County Community College
    2.4769
    Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority
    0.2146
    Wayne County Intermediate School District
    3.4643
    Detroit Board of Education
    30.9323
    State of Michigan
    6.0000
    NET MILLAGE RAGE
    84.5085

  8. Robert Burgess

    Thank-you, Mr. Sanchez. As a volunteer for and board member of a SW Michigan Soup Kitchen, I thank-you.

  9. J Hendricks

    The problem is that streets populated with panhandlers gradually become places to avoid by average shoppers, who take their business to less harassing places. Businesses in the panhandler zone increasingly lose customers, retailers shut down, municipal taxes then disappear, and the death spiral begins. True, it is a moral problem, but other solutions need to be found.

    1. Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Mr. Hendricks,

      I agree that panhandling is not the solution, but neither is throwing panhandlers in jail or fining them (which is ridiculous). As for whether or not panhandlers drive people away from businesses, I’m skeptical. For nine years I lived in Chicago where panhandling is ubiquitous and I doubt very much that people avoided the Loop or the Magnificent Mile because people were asking for change. Since being back in Grand Rapids I can only recall one time when a panhandler came up to me directly; most of the time they are just standing silently on street corners with signs. And while I have read a few “horror stories” about irate and abusive beggars, I can give you exponentially more about irate and abusive fans after sporting and music events at the Van Andel Arena downtown. Should we close the arena down or simply expect law enforcement to deal with the individuals who are unruly?

  10. Judy Gardner

    While i don’t usually give money to panhandlers, Mr. Sanchez’ article, along with an experience i had last week, is causing me to rethink that. My main reason for not giving to panhandlers is that i am afraid i will only be enabling their addictions. Many of those whom i meet do not look sober. The woman with a young child who asked me for a couple of dollars for the bus last week did not appear to be under the influence of any legal or illegal substance. So i gave her a buck. Maybe i read her right and maybe i was wrong. I only know that if i needed a handout to get on a bus to get home i would be both mortified and grateful to successfully approach a stranger.

    What worries me most about most of the responses to this article is the attitude of superiority of the writers and the assumption that those who are panhandling are somehow cheats, that they are lazy or dangerous or don’t know what is good for them. How can we validly make those assumptions when we live in a society that has mostly dismantled its mental health facilities, that offers the poor substandard education in settings that are often personally degrading if not outright violent, and that has a dearth of treatment options available for those in desperate need.

    Each of those panhandlers on the street has his or her own, personal story of what brought them there. Some are mentally, physically, or emotionally impaired in some way, Some have simply made poor choices along the way. Some never had a chance from birth. I find them less repugnant than the strutting, gloating rich who were born on third base and think they have hit home runs.

    Thanks, Mr. Sanchez. I can afford to be more generous in the future, and i shall.

    1. Ronald D.

      Judy Gardner, That women with the child you gave a Buck to has her begging down pat, she even brings her own props. (a child) its the oldest scam on the books, even Obama uses this technique to tug on your heart strings to help pass undesirable laws.

  11. Jeff

    In Lansing, a lot of people came out to the corners in 2008 when the market crashed, before this, it was very rare to see someone doing thins. The first people were all heroin addicts, this was investigated and well documented. When the addicts were uncovered, they stopped. Several more people started showing up, usually 2 to 4 per intersection. This was also investigated and it was discovered the supreme court ruled panhandling was not a crime. The two attorneys from Detroit who pled the case hired these people to work for them. They would collect the money and split it with them at the end of every day. Several people observed black SUV’s dropping off and picking these people at the end of the day. They were all newer Cadillac Escalades. Today, I see 4 to 6 people early in the mornings at the intersections, sitting around and talking with coffee and doughnuts. A couple of cars picks them up now. I don’t know if they still work for the attorneys. The was a report of a homeless veteran standing on a corner asking for help. He was run off by these other people because he was taking their money. Some of the people would also ride the bus home. They made the mistake of bragging how much money they were making panhandling prompting three newspaper investigations into what was going on. Mind you all of this has been going on at a time when the local Volunteers of America, the City Rescue Mission, the homeless shelter all had plenty of room for people to stay the night. One day, the person in charge of the mission went around the city to every intersection where people were panhandling. He offered them a place to sleep and a meal, along with free bus passes to get there. He was turned down by everyone he contacted, they all said they had places to stay and just wanted the money. Several people went and bought cheeseburgers to hand out over the years. No more than a few people took and ate them, many of the people just threw them on the ground telling the people to jsut give them the money. I know there are people who need help and to the best of my knowledge, the majority have a place to stay and get something to eat everyday. As time has gone on, some of these people have become more aggressive, running in front of cars, sticking heads and arms in the windows, especially if they are women drivers. A study was done in Michigan in the early 90’s to determine how many homeless people really needed assistance to help determine if cuts could be made to certain programs. It found 80% of the people had permanent residences and many of those had sufficient money to live for many months. I am sure this number has changed today, but a lot of those people just wanted to live that way. All I can say is around Lansing, if people stop giving money to them, eventually they will stop panhandling. Right now there is enough room for the people who want and need help. A lot of this information was printed in the newspapers and some came from the police department. I do not mind helping people if they really need it, but this behavior and apparent deception really turns off the charitable feelings.

  12. Matt

    Is enabling someone to maintain their existence begging by an expressway exit somehow showing you care? Or do we practice some kind of condescension denying others the expectation to live to their potential what ever it is? ( Assuming most people I witness out there are able to do more than beg.) Shouldn’t one know a lot more about someone before making that determination? Handing out cash is easy though.

  13. ***

    I saw a beggar a few months ago at a Lansing intersection in a wheelchair and with a sign that he was a Vietnam veteran. I wondered if that was a sympathy ploy. Only saw him once.

  14. Janine

    Excellent article Mr. Sanchez!

  15. Andrew

    A couple years back, I was walking down College Street toward Michigan Ave., on my way to class at Grand Rapids Community College and noticing a man with crutches holding up a cardboard sign asking for help. I didn’t think much of it and continued on my way. Five hours later, walking back from classes, I noticed he was still there. I decided to go and talk to him. He told me he was trying to get money for food and I offered to get him something. He was very grateful. I went up the road and grabbed him a bowl of soup and some water. When I came back he asked me if I could sit with him for a little bit and hang out. I stayed and talked with him for about an hour. He didn’t merely desire charity, but actually wanted to feel like a human being again. He needed someone to actually care.

    I cannot help but notice in this comment section of the constant use of the word “they.” Hairman’s comment especially appalls me. I’ve worked as a volunteer to help the homeless of Grand Rapids for five years and have had the pleasure to get to know many of the individuals who are forced, by various circumstances, to live their lives on the streets. People who so many consider lazy or con-artists. Are there con-artists out there? Of course there are. However, the majority of the people I’ve met are truly in need of help and if they had the chance to get out of their situation, they would in the blink of an eye. You may believe that they are an organized rabble who hope to feed off the kindness of the next sucker who passes them by, but that is not reality. The vast majority of homeless people I have met hate the situation they are in. Its easy to judge a people without even knowing who they are.

    I will not gloss over the fact that there are some who struggle with addiction and are looking for help in order to score the next fix of whatever escape they are trying to get their hands on. However, that is not all of them and it is not up to us to judge which ones are among the “deserving poor.” There is really no way for us to know what they will do with the dollar we give them. Some will indeed use it to buy food. I’ve also met some who try to save up enough so they can purchase a night a motel so they don’t have to stay at a mission. They are people just like us who merely want to feel like human beings.

  16. Orville

    Pathetic. That’s what I think. Those that judge or jump on stereotypes are pathetic. I feel for those people-everyone of them! If you have an addiction- I feel for you. If you are homeless- I feel for you. If you are hungry- I feel for you. Think about it for a minute, put yourself in their shoes. Think about being so destitute that you have to beg to survive! Think about hard it would be for YOU to do that.
    I give them a dollar which does not hurt me and helps them a little. I feel good about helping a little and they feel good as well.
    Why do you feel that way, just think. I ignored the beggars for years of my life and finally realized it was because I was embarrassed.
    Embarrassed for them for having to do that, embarrassed for me for seeing them beg, and embarrassed for the USA that anyone living here has to do that. I got past that and feel better because I did. I suggest the rest of you get over whatever your issue is as well. .

  17. Duane

    Mr. Sanchez’s article has caused me to think a bit, not about the issue of panhandling and the laws he is against for he has shown little understanding in the issues involved, he appears to have made little effort to gain any understanding of the contributors to the issue, and he shows no interest in the unintended consequences of what his solution may create.

    What he caused me to think about is why people think and act as he does. Why do they believe that their ‘good intentions’ are all that matters, that they are so willing to sacrifice what has benefited so many (“both in Michigan and throughout the United States, need to thoroughly rethink our economic order” ) for so few, why they are so adverse to trying to understand the root causes of an issue, why they are so unwilling to listen to what others have to say, why they are so self-assured, why they avoid engaging in a conversation on whatever they want to happen, why they so easily disregard the impact on the society as a whole.

    The concern that such articles raise how Mr. Sanchez and others what to make people more dependent on their ‘good intentions’ rather than respect the individuals and work toward their having the means to make their own choices..

  18. jj

    Anti-panhandling ordinances are not taking dignity and right to live away from them. Dignity will be going out to get a job and earn an honest living.

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