Should panhandling be legal?
Petula Dvorak wrote the article that I post below in full length because it touches many bases regarding panhandlers. Yet, it misses some major points.
1. If you lose your job, your home, and more, the government and community system most do something to help solve the problem. You can’t have people in a perpetual failure loop.
2. If you need mental health or medical help, it should be there. If you need temporary housing until you can get a job, it should be there. A safety net is needed for those who are trying, and keep trying.
3. If you have lost your ability to care for yourself due to mental and physical disability, then the system must take care of the problem effectively.
Therefore, the only people we should see on the streets panhandling are people who declined assistance and are on their own because that is their choice. At that point, they become liable for their actions and communities should not tolerate panhandling.
The trouble is, we have not address points 1-3 effectively and they and we are in limbo. They take their chances and we take ours, casting the fate of fellow human beings to the wind and deriding the quality of our communities.
Panhandling: the uncomfortable truths and lies
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
There's the sideways shuffle. The downward eyes. And the phone flip.
They're on to us, the panhandlers.
They know the ways we try to avoid them with a quick lane change to dodge their styrofoam cup, the eye glaze or the sudden phone-to-ear move to fake a very urgent call.
And we're running out of ways to confront the parade of broken humanity that's an in-your-face part of daily life in our region as the numbers of homeless and unemployed remain stubbornly high.
"Sometimes, people cross the street when they see me. Or just look right past me, like I'm not even there," said 48-year-old Rodney Miller, as a few folks blew past him on a cold night last week outside the McPherson Square Metro station.
"The worst thing ever they can say to me is 'Get a job,'âŠ" Rodney told me. He said he lost his job as a Metro bus driver recently and has been on the streets for about three months. "I want a job. Of course, I want a job. That's all I want. I'd rather be working than out here. Who wouldn't be?"
Sure, there's Rodney, whose teeth are still nice, whose eyes are still clear. His shoes don't have holes yet; his jacket isn't ragged. He'll take a sandwich or an apple if you give it to him. He tells you that God will bless you for your kindness.
Sometimes, it's enough for people to simply acknowledge him, he says.
"Just look at my eyes, tell me something uplifting. That helps," he tells me.
But let's face it. Not all the folks out there are Rodney. Frankly, I'll never know if I have Rodney's real story.
Because there's the guy who worked the bench across the street from him during the summer.”
"I'll be honest with you, honey. I just need to get me a drink," he often told me, as I eye-glazed past him on my way to the Metro.
I never stopped to ask his name, but I've seen folks laugh and reward him with a buck or two for a brutal honesty rarely found in Washington.
That same trick didn't work for a girl I met in Tompkins Square Park in New York over the weekend. She had bleached bangs, two rings in her lower lip, a nasty rucksack and an emergency. "I need a beer. It's a total emergency. Just, like, a quarter is all I need from you."
The honesty gig seemed to work for a guy known as "Weed Man" in Times Square. He gets wads of cash from tourists who love his sign "Help! I need money for weed." Of course, it's a double lie. He told the New York Times that he uses the cash to fund a budding career in real estate.
The panhandler hustle is common in the District, too.
"There are people who don't want to talk to us because being on the street can be lucrative," said Linda Kaufman, executive director of Pathways to Housing, an organization that gets homeless people into their own apartments. "They can make $100 a day."
So there are drunks, con artists, addicts and broken souls who genuinely got a raw deal - all asking for our help in a very real way.
I've given a buck or two and knew as I was doing it that it was a waste of money. I've eye-glazed past and felt terrible about it. I once tried carrying granola bars in my purse to hand out, only to feel powerfully stupid when a beaten-down homeless man with bad teeth and nowhere to sleep tossed my oat bran brick (with antioxidant cranberries and dark chocolate!) into the trash can. Then I tried a different tack: I engaged one guy, John, for an hour, only to have him call my office 37 times in one day.
Basically, I never make the right choice.
So what should we do when we encounter panhandlers? The constant assault of their woe is painful, and doing the dead fish gaze and ignoring them can be brutal on your humanity, especially during the holidays.
So I decided to get some advice from the experts who dedicate their lives to working with the homeless.
Kaufman said that, for the most part, she doesn't give cash on the street.
"If they tell me they're hungry, I'll buy them a burger. If they say they need $2 for a co-pay on a prescription, I'll walk over to CVS with them and pay for it," she told me.
Every study around says that cash handouts don't help, she said. "The top uses when they get cash are always alcohol, tobacco and drugs."
And there are so many food programs throughout the city, no one in Washington should be going hungry, she told me.
If she's got the time, Kaufman tries to engage with the person and help them with a no-cash solution.
But she's honest.
"It's a crapshoot; I don't always have that kind of time," she said. And she admits to doing the eye glaze every once in a while when she's rushing.
"The question I really hate is 'Do you have any money?' Of course, I have money, but I'm not giving it to you," she told me.
Adam Maier, the clerk of the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee, said he tries to avoid giving cash and carries around $5 gift cards to fast food places.
But he also finds that stopping to talk to folks on the street can be kindness enough. When people lose their homes, they quickly become invisible to the friends and family they once had, until, slowly, their only human contact is with other homeless folks.
"Often I hear from them: 'I really appreciate that you took the time to talk to me'," Maier said.
Tom Howarth, who runs the Father McKenna Center, said he's been frustrated with people he's tried to help. He bought one guy lunch at Au Bon Pain and watched him go back into the store to try and return the food and get the cash.
"I'm aware of the admonition not to refuse the beggar," he told me. "But it's a moral dilemma."
"Acknowledging their humanity is one of the important things," he said.
Acknowledge is a word I heard a lot while talking to panhandlers in our region.
"Just waving at me and saying hi every morning is okay," said Mary Jo Fish, who worked the intersections near the Westfield Wheaton Mall in Montgomery County, where panhandling is legal.
"I'm staying in Prince George's, but it's illegal to panhandle over there. So I do it here," she told me, waving at another driver. Wheaton put together a task force this summer to study whether it can do something about the panhandling that goes on there.
Fish hopes officials leave it alone. She's known among the other panhandlers on that corner for the $50 she once got.
"That was amazing," she said. She lost her job as a waitress at IHOP. She wants to wait tables again but can't afford to get her top front teeth replaced.
"No one's going to give me work without these," she told me, pressing her thumb into the empty space.
It was cold the morning we talked. Folks get more generous when it gets colder and closer to the holidays, she said.
"Look at this coat," she said, waving her arm down the emerald-green wool coat she was wearing. "A lady I saw every morning here finally pulled up one day and took this coat out of her car. She said it was her mom's coat, but her mom died. It really meant something. She acknowledged how darn cold I was out here."”