Any discussion about the homeless invariably elicits a mixed emotional response of both compassion and condemnation. Homeless advocates claim efforts to crack down on beggars are heartless and a sign of public callousness. Most cities with the problem, though, do not suffer from too little compassion, but too much of the wrong kind.
Panhandlers were once called derelicts –primarily drunks and addicts. These destitute souls lived in virtual isolation in what was known as Skid Row. In recent years, with prodding by advocates, public tolerance has allowed them to make their way back into the general population. Now, they are more affectionately, sometimes mistakenly, called the homeless. But homelessness is not the only issue of most street people.
Unlike the former stereotype of the Skid Row bum, today’s homeless are comprised of a socially disturbed subculture of the mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts and ne’er do wells.
Many of us try to ignore those who beg; avoid eye contact, walk around them or cross the street. At the same time, our tendency is to be sensitive to those we believe to truly be less fortunate. Because we can’t easily distinguish between who is actually down and out and who are the hustlers, we often get a twinge of guilt when we ignore them.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the overwhelming majority are not victims of a streak of bad luck, but victims of their own behavior. According to some estimates, about 60 percent test positive for drugs and alcohol. Some are able-bodied men who live off the misplaced generosity and compassion of the sympathetic. Others have a history of mental illness, but these are typically not the majority of those engaged in predatory street begging.
Almost all homeless families find a haven in shelters. Most of the single men and women who enter shelters are only temporarily displaced and may have other housing options, such as living with friends or relatives. Often, they wear out the welcome of those close to them and are forced out. Some, of course, prefer a free bed in a shelter, or to mooch off others, rather than work and pay rent.
The proliferation of beggars has captured the attention of residents and businesses in Detroit’s Corktown community and Royal Oak. Their menacing behavior exhausts public patience to the point that Royal Oak enforces an ordinance that makes begging a crime. The ACLU of Michigan calls it unconstitutional.
Royal Oak is not the only city with an ordinance that imposes penalties, usually misdemeanors, on vagrants. Some laws make it illegal to beg “by accosting another or by forcing oneself upon the company of another.” Few, as in Detroit, are rigorously enforced.
The public’s sense of insecurity, however, is not baseless. Aggressive panhandlers harass and intimidate in ways that cause people to avoid business and entertainment venues. Many have criminal histories. So what is a city to do?
What we know is there is an abundance of funded social service agencies, emergency relief and intervention programs, churches and charitable soup kitchens that provide food, shelter and assistance for homeless individuals who want to make the transition to independent living. Too few of the needy walk through these doors.
Giving freeloaders money should be off the table since the cash they get is used for other than food or shelter. Panhandling tends to support addiction.
The public’s right to enjoy safe streets is a basic responsibility of government. So stronger panhandler laws may be required to control littering and disorderly conduct, and help people deal with that unsettling feeling of not knowing what to do when approached for money.
The right to beg, after all, is outweighed by the right of everyone to walk the streets unmolested.