My small New Hampshire town recently lost an expensive lawsuit to the ACLU, which was defending a panhandler who claimed that he had been harassed by the police. The police had told him that standing on the sidewalk and holding a sign asking for money was a crime, which it isn’t–yet. In the next town over, they are considering making it illegal.
These kinds of laws are usually justified as public safety concerns–a driver stopping to give money may be rear-ended, or a panhandler walking into the road may be hit. When I researched it a bit, though, I barely found any mentions of accidents caused by panhandling. This seems to be a way to hide the real purpose of the law.
The other motives for a law like this seem to be (a) it makes people uncomfortable, (b) it makes the town look bad, and (c) they’re mostly scammers or addicts. None of these seem sufficient to warrant a law, in my opinion; but the issue is bringing out a lot of other ugly attitudes and confusing questions. I certainly don’t have any solutions for homelessness, but I have few thoughts on how we should consider this problem:
- I’m not naive; I understand that some of these people are scammers, and quite a few are addicts, looking for quick cash for their next fix. Nevertheless, I can’t quite square it with my conscience to never give to these people. If they use my money for something bad, I don’t think my connection to the evil is direct enough to make me morally culpable (unless it was really, really obvious, like if they were already drunk). And with that out of the way, I can’t believe that it can do my soul anything but good to offer charity in this way. (Unless, of course, my motive is just to feel good about myself.) Even if 9 out of 10 are fakes, what if the one I refuse happens to be the one genuinely in need of help? (One of my friends pointed me to a lovely Fulton Sheen quote, which says much the same: “I can’t take the chance.”)
- Most people seem to think that they can tell at a glance whether the panhandler is a fake or not: “He’s young and strong;” “He was smoking a cigarette;” “His clothes were awfully clean for someone who can’t afford food.” “I’m not going to give money to a bum drinking Dunkin Donuts.” The problem with this is that looks are deceiving. Someone may appear strong and healthy, but be suffering from severe mental illness that prevents him from getting or keeping a job. And just because someone owns a phone, or a cigarette, or some nice clothes, doesn’t mean that he bought them himself; they might have been given to him. Likewise, he may have been bought that coffee, or he may have used the money he was given to buy Dunkin Donuts, because it was in walking distance and he really wanted something hot.
- Then again, there’s this objection: “We have agencies for this.” (Am I the only one who thinks this sounds a little too much like Scrooge?) “Give your money to the homeless shelter instead.” This may be the right way to go; at least we can be pretty sure that homeless shelters and other agencies are using the money correctly. But the fact remains that a lot of people are homeless because of mental illness, and someone with severe mental problems is not necessarily going to be able to seek out the help he needs, or be able to follow the rules in a shelter or complete the qualifications for aid. For example, imagine someone with severe anxiety entering a welfare office: it’s hot, it’s crowded, there are kids screaming, there are 3 different languages being spoken at once, there’s a complicated sign-in process, and the lady at the counter wants you to show 5 different documents to prove that you’re eligible for aid. That would send most people running! Then again, homeless shelters often don’t have any room, and they’re often dangerous, especially for young women. (“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die…”)
Again, I don’t have any solutions. (Also, this is the perspective of someone in a small town; this is a much different issue in the big city.) But what I would like to see is a more human and accurate portrayal of panhandlers. Enough assumptions and speculations; let’s only say what we really know.