No more asking strangers for help. No more begging. It’s bothering us. We’re going to make it against the law.
Then we can issue municipal citations which people will be unable to pay. After a while, their unpaid fines will land them in jail where, at least, their housing problems can be temporarily solved.
Local Alderman Bob Donovan has decided that panhandling folks at intersections and freeway ramps are endangering the rest of us so he’s proposing a new ordinance to make it illegal. He held a press conference yesterday at a busy city intersection to make his point. I think the panhandlers probably adjourned to another corner for the day.
Because I work on homeless issues, folks think I’m a sucker for homeless people. Sometimes. Not always. Do I think every homeless-looking person holding a cardboard sign at an intersection or freeway ramp is actually homeless? No, not necessarily. Do I think every homeless-looking person who gets $5 from a driver idling at the light is running off to buy fresh veggies at the farmer’s market? No, not necessarily.
Do I roll down my window and give money to folks who give me that earnest, help me look? No, not very often. Once in a very great while. One reason is that it’s impossible to dig my wallet out of the bottom of my purse, open it, find a $5 bill and hand it to the sign-holding person before the light changes. Another reason is that I like my charity to occur in an audited world. I give money to organizations that are responsible, frugal and outcome-driven.
Then I don’t have to engage in stupid conversations with people who maintain that ‘homeless people are just using the money they get panhandling to buy crack.’ Whatever. If you believe that, then don’t give them money. It’s that simple.
When I have given a homeless person money, it’s been a face to face request on the street when I’m walking somewhere. Something about the person strikes me as genuine. I see myself or my kids or people I’ve known and loved in the past in their eyes. I see a person, a comrade on earth, someone wearing a ‘there but for the grace of God’ t-shirt, I see my good fortune and life luck having been randomly dropped on me, I see unfairness and bad breaks heaped on someone, I see that it doesn’t matter if I give the person $5 or not, it won’t make a difference in the big scheme of things, I see that for 10 seconds, the air around us can be kind and unquestioning.
Banning panhandling is, in my book, a homeless-hating initiative. It’s okay to be homeless but only if you’re unobtrusive about it. To me, the message is really ‘let’s ban the poor.’ Well, in Milwaukee, where we have close to 30% of the population living under the poverty line, where, year after year, we take our place among the country’s poorest cities, that will be making a whole lot of people outlaws.
So what’s next? Banning sleeping in public parks? Ticketing unlicensed grocery carts used on city sidewalks? Going after the overloaded bicycles with trash bags filled with cans hanging from the handlebars? Let’s just cut to the chase and make it illegal to be homeless. Why mess around with half measures?
I say people holding signs begging for money are our city’s canaries In the mine shaft. They’re telling us that what we’re doing to deal with poverty and homelessness isn’t working. They are our human outcome measures.
It’s hard, boring, demeaning work. They deserve to get paid.