Panhandling and Faithful Citizenship

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Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 do. Photo by Scott Ball.

Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, who remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 do. Photo by Scott Ball.

I’ve always been uncomfortably ambivalent about panhandlers, giving to some, not giving to others. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus sparked a robust public conversation when he asked City Council to make it illegal to give food or money to panhandlers on city streets.

(Read More: SAPD to Propose Anti-Panhandling Ordinance)

The subject has drawn passionate comments from people on both sides of the issue, some asserting their right to give, and others praising the Chief and urging him to clean up the streets. The City’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to consider the matter again Wednesday.

I am caught with a foot in each camp. That seems inconsistent on the surface, but let me add some context.

There are far fewer street people and panhandlers in downtown San Antonio than there were in the days before the Haven for Hope opened its doors on the near-Westside. The Haven for Hope might be the most under-appreciated social asset in the city.

The H4H can’t perform social miracles. It can’t force mentally ill and drug addicted people into its programs. It isn’t a jail or repository for street people. The police can’t arrest every person who asks for spare change. So street people, to some degree, are part of the urban fabric, and as people in need, they are going to ask for handouts.

I think McManus is right in recognizing a problem, wrong with his solution. Most of the panhandlers are, indeed, looking for money to score dope, feed their alcoholism, or maybe hit a fast food outlet. They’d be far better served entering a program where they clean up, eat a nutritious meal and begin the process of getting back on their feet. That’s aspirational, not always realistic.

I give a handout when I think the person asking will use it well. That includes people looking for bus money (I ask their VIA route number and where they are going), women with children, and actually, just about any sober woman, period. I also give to men, except when they smell of alcohol or seem stoned. That rules out most men.

I’m acting as judge and jury, but I do the same thing in deciding where to make charitable contributions and where not to make them. What I am not doing is vilifying the panhandlers. They aren’t criminals unless they’re snatching purses or intimidating people. I’m not a bad guy for giving, or for not giving.

Earl, an Armed Forces veteran has been panhandling for more than 15 years. " I can't get a job, the only jobs available are manual labor.  I'm too old to work manual labor, I just can't function in this society." he said. Photo by Scott Ball.

Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, has been panhandling for more than 15 years. ” I can’t get a job, the only jobs available are manual labor. I’m too old to work manual labor, I just can’t function in this society,” he said. Photo by Scott Ball.

Police need a tool to control panhandling, and the ordinance making it illegal gives them that tool. I wouldn’t mind if City Council made it an even bigger problem to panhandle in traffic because I think there is a real safety issue there. I don’t give to firefighters holding out a boot, either, because I don’t think moving vehicles and people asking for handouts are a good mix.

Perhaps if police would pick up panhandlers in traffic and take them to a shelter it would improve things. Some might actually accept professional help, while others might be so inconvenienced they would tire of the cat and mouse game with police.

What is lost in this conversation about ordinances and offenses and penalties and policing is this: Charity should be part of our urban culture.

I know that there are people posing to win sympathy. For every con man, however, there are many more people who are hurting. It only takes one visit to the St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room to be reminded.

McManus’ proposed ordinance takes away an individual’s ability to commit a random act of kindness.  We certainly need laws to govern us. By the same token, we see every day that we can’t legislate away our problems. Can City Council craft a sensible compromise ordinance that reduces panhandling as a nuisance or public danger, yet recognizes the right of people to help others on an individual basis? It’s not an easy thing.

There are thousands of non-profit groups and organizations working every day in our city to make the world a better place. They are the best recipients of our charitable giving. The human condition, however, will continue to confront us on downtown streets. Most of us will struggle to act in accordance with our beliefs. I’m not sure another ordinance will make that job any easier.

*Featured/top image: Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, who remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 cars will give him money. Photo by Scott Ball.

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A Deeper Definition of Poverty in San Antonio

9 thoughts on “Panhandling and Faithful Citizenship

  1. In the places/situations downtown where panhandling has been made illegal, it’s dead wrong to tell the panhandlers “you can’t ask for money” while AT THE SAME TIME tell everyone else “go ahead and give it to them.” That’s criminalizing the poor but not criminalizing the more privileged for behavior that is two sides of the same coin. The law has to be applied equally. Arresting panhandlers for asking for handouts but standing by while “citizens” offer the handouts –basically luring pandhandlers into illegal behavior– is 1) morally wrong and 2) makes the downtown police look bad, when they are doing the job that has been given them. I agree that there are probably other, better ways to approach the issue.

  2. We don’t need another stupid law. I live downtown and there are not that many people asking for money. I always give what I can and I will continue.

  3. We don’t need another stupid law. I live downtown and there are not that many people asking for money. I always give what I can and I will continue.

  4. I’m with you, Bob. I’m picky about who I give to also, with the same kind of criteria you use. I follow the same rules with the booths often set up at the doors of stores, especially Walmart (yeah, I know, probably not a place you frequent, lol). But for me, giving is a freedom of religion issue, as I’m specifically commanded to do it. I shan’t let human laws stop me from that.

  5. Study after study has shown that money given to panhandlers goes primarily to drugs and alcohol. Why not volunteer at Haven? Why not help the Salvation Army? For some people, handing a person with a cardboard sign a dollar through a car window makes them feel good. There is a word for these people:enabler.

  6. I thought this was beautifully written, and full of nuance — and I for one was glad you brought it back on the scene to talk about. When it first came out I found it deeply disturbing, and thought about the implications for days — enough to start researching approaches other cities take and whether this would be the most extreme (the part about criminalizing charity would be). So much to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for another time.

    I miss the good old days of journalism where this might occasion a “point/counterpoint” with say, Chief McManus and on the other side, maybe the director of Haven for Hope. There’s still a lot for everyone to learn on this topic. But I very much appreciate the beautiful way this was brought back into the public eye. I hope the attention won’t fade; it’s a reflection on our humanity, even though truly there are no easy answers. Sometimes it’s the struggle to get there that will matter.

  7. Im a mom and a gramma i dont drink or do drugs. Ive worked 21years and now i cant im waiting on disability. I have no income and no health ins. The church that paid for me to go to dr. Every month saw me panhandle its to pay for my meds. They cut me off. In july i had a heart attack and heart surgery and a splent put in. Now if i run out of my meds its life or death. I have to take them so i dont get blood clots or reject my stent. When you see me know its life or death ok.kim 2104271654. I own a home cant afford the mortgage so my husband of 25 years lives there with his girlfriend and her mom and kids.

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