What to give to panhandlers? – Pt. 1

Posted: February 22, 2009 in Civil Rights, Compassion, Discrimination, Government, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Money, Panhandling, Politics

I received an email from a woman named Francine a couple of days ago. Her inquiry was about panhandling and what I felt were things she could give that would be beneficial.

Her email caught me a bit off guard. But it was a pleasant change of pace.

Generally, when I’ve written about panhandling, I’ve invariably been sent emails chiding me for my point of view – especially since, unlike many people, I personally don’t see anything wrong with folks giving a homeless person alms. In fact, I have a tendency to defend a homeless person’s right to panhandle.  

Originally, I intended to give a quick response, but then a thought came to mind: perhaps there were others like Francine who wanted to give, but aren’t sure if they should give; or even what – other than money – would be the best things to give. So, after a bit of considering, I opted to blog about it. When I began to think about how to proceed, I realized that it would probably end up being a rather lengthy post, so decided to break it down into two posts.

Before I attempt to answer Francine’s questions, however, I guess I should explain my defense of a person’s right to panhandle.

First is the issue of legality.

I recognize that many folks view panhandlers as a nuisance. However, here in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that panhandling (commonly referred to as "soliciting") is protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

To be sure, cities and town may be able to set in place some "regulations" regarding certain places where a person can panhandle. For example, an ordinance could be adopted which prohibits a person from panhandling within a certain distance from an ATM machine or a bank entrance without violating a person’s civil rights. But overall, they cannot set in place a city-wide ban to prohibit the activity altogether.

Subsequently, although there are those within a community who may feel disgusted by or annoyed with a person who panhandles, it is not a criminal activity.

The second issue one of humanitarianism.

In a court case (Benefit v. Cambridge – 1997) that challenged a Massachusetts statewide statute which prohibited the "wandering abroad and begging," or "go[ing] about…in public or private ways…for the purpose of begging or to receive alms," that state’s Supreme Court issued the unanimous opinion,

(1) that peaceful begging involves communicative activity protected by the First Amendment, (2) that the criminal sanction imposed was an improper viewpoint-based restriction on speech in a public forum, based on the content of the message conveyed, and (3) that the statute was not constitutionally viable when subjected to strict scrutiny. The court also emphasized that the prohibition on begging not only infringes upon the right of free communication, it also suppresses "an even broader right – the right to engage fellow human beings with the hope of receiving aid and compassion."

The third issue has to do with a lack of resources available for the homeless.

Contrary to popular belief, homeless support services organizations (homeless shelters and day centers for the homeless) are not meeting all of the needs of the homeless. At best they provide a meal and – when space allows – temporary overnight shelter.

In their defense, I must point out that homeless support services agencies are severely under-funded and under-staffed.

In fact, with the current economic recession, many of these agencies are having their funding reduced, as local governments face budgetary deficits. In addition, as more and more people find themselves struggling to make ends meet, donations from private citizens have also declined.

Consequently, they are unable to provide services to every homeless person within their community. To make matters worse, the housing crisis has caused an increase of folks seeking aid from these organizations. Sadly, a sizable number of them are being "turned away at the door."

In the end, some homeless are left with no other alternative but to panhandle in an attempt to survive.

Please note, I said: some homeless.

Admittedly there are those who panhandle in order to feed an addiction. On the other hand, there are indeed those who do so to feed and cloth themselves.

If we don’t want folks panhandling then we either need to find ways of helping them become self-sustaining members of the community, or expand current services so that they have no need to panhandle.

Regardless of why a person panhandles, as long as there are homeless there will be those among them who will engage in the activity. That’s just the way it is.

What to give to panhandlers? – Pt. 2

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