Monday, October 30, 2006

Panhandling and community values

What to do about panhandlers? A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting of what started out as the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership Kiosk Giving Task Force and has evolved into the Downtown Outreach Work Group. The kiosk task force had arisen in response to the offer of an anonymous donor to fund a "giving kiosk" on Franklin Street where people could deposit money that went directly to social service organizations--as an alternative to giving directly to panhandlers. After a thorough discussion at a meeting I missed, the task force decided that the kiosk would not be an effective way to address the panhandling problem. Rather, they decided, and confirmed at the Oct. 13 meeting I did participate in, that it would be more effective to engage in educational campaigns aimed at citizens (especially students) and in direct social service intervention with the panhandlers, something like the way they do in Madison, Wisconsin, which some who went on the Chamber's trip to Madison had a chance to observe. Efforts will go into an educational campaign something like the Give a Better Way campaign in Denver.

At the Oct. 13 meeting, the topic of panhandling ordinances was raised again. Effective May 1, 2003, Chapel Hill enacted a ban on panhandling in certain places and at certain times. Although the reach was broader than "aggressive panhandling" (which is why I would have opposed it, had I been on the Town Council), its purpose was to provide a more effective means of controlling aggressive panhandling. Controlling aggressive behavior of any kind, including the panhandling kind, is a valid public purpose. But there's a tendency to want to do more than that: to want to shove the panhandlers out of sight, so that they do not make others feel uncomfortable. (That's what the Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale ordinances are explicitly about.) At the Oct. 13 meeting, we took a look at Madison's ordinance. Here's how it defines "aggressive panhandling":

Behavior shall be construed as "aggressive" or "intimidating" if a reasonably prudent individual could be deterred from passing through or remaining in or near any thoroughfare, or place open to the public because of fear, concern, or apprehension.

"could be deterred . . . because of fear, concern, or apprehension." What kind of standard is that? It's a good deal looser than the sample definition offered on the League of Wisconsin Municipalities site (see ordinance #88).

106-1.1. Aggressive Panhandling.
1. DEFINITIONS. a. "Aggressive behavior" means engaging in any conduct with the intention of intimidating another person into giving away money or goods, including but not limited to, intentionally approaching, speaking to or following a person in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to fear imminent physical injury or the imminent commission of a criminal act upon the person or upon the property in the person's immediate possession; intentionally touching another person without consent; or intentionally blocking or interfering with the free passage of a person.

At the Oct. 13 meeting I discouraged the task force from going in the direction of Madison's ordinance, and others there, including UNC grad student Barbie Schalmo, understood the point. My complaint is not so much about the legal implications--in the conservative Fourth Circuit such a law might well pass constitutional scrutiny under the relevant set of questions. My complaint echoes that of moral philosopher Uma Narayan in The Ethics of Homelessness. When you begin to regulate panhandling according to people's perceptions of the panhandlers, as opposed to specifically "aggressive" behavioral characteristics, you have just about said that panhandling itself is "inherently harassing." She continues,

I believe that justifying a ban on begging on the basis of morally problematic public sensibilities, on stereotypes, prejudiced antipathies, and misplaced resentment, violates what [philosopher] Richard Mohr calls the Dreyfus Principle. The principle says "[s]tigmas that are entirely socially induced shall not play a part in our rational moral deliberation," and rules out using discriminatory sentiments held by people as a good reason for institutionalizing further discrimination.

Narayan thus argues, and I agree, that a concern that the presence of panhandlers in a downtown district discourages foot-traffic and therefore undermines the economic health of downtown is not a morally valid reason for the further regulation of panhandling.

On the other hand, the impulse behind the idea of the giving kiosk had much to recommend itself. I think it represented a genuine wish to be helpful, to reach out as a community to help those in need. The trouble is that we don't have natural connections with panhandlers; they appear to us as strangers, one at a time, seemingly cut off from the community. We really don't know what a pandhandler will do with the dollar we give him, and we have reason to fear the worst. The initiatives that the Downtown Outreach Work Group is about to embark on are potentially good ones--as long as they include a recognition that in the end we cannot control the lives or wills of others, that not every panhandler is dishonest or deceitful, that there is genuine need staring us in the face. (The Denver program's home page is pretty harsh: a picture of an upturned palm, inscribed, "Please help. Don't give.")

Edwin Lanier, for example, son of a former mayor of Chapel Hill, is a recovering alcoholic and a panhandler who is homeless--by his own choice.

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