*anti-panhandling laws: arguments against & issue overview FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 8 Nov 1998 06:57:27 -0400

"In sum, these arguments are offered against anti-panhandling laws:
1.They precipitate incivility to poor people;
2.They restrict free speech;
3.They are ineffective;
4.They unravel two threads from the fabric of community: trust and charity."
-- from article below

FWD  http://thecity.sfsu.edu/~stewartd/pan.html


     David T. Stewart

      Economic Enterprises of Homeless People

Is this an oxymoron or an anomaly? How can homeless people pursue a private
business enterprise? However many do. Prostitution might spring to mind. Of
course you will find both homeless men and women attempting to survive this
way in the Polk or the Tenderloin in San Francisco. But you will also find
people collecting cans and bottles to sell to recyclers or offering to wash
the windows of your car in Berkeley, or finding you parking places in San
Francisco's SOMA. Remarkably, these latter attempts at private enterprise
are sometimes redefined by municipalities as "illegal." In New York City,
for instance, washing car windows has been criminalized as "squigee
harassment." Among the enterprises in which homeless people engage is

    Myths about Panhandling

Louise Stark, in her article "From Lemons to Lemonade," analyzes the
research from seven studies conducted on panhandling from 1985-1989. Are
all homeless people panhandlers? No. The percentage ranges from a high of
34.4% in Washington, D.C. to 6.8% in Denver. In one study the nationwide
average was 17%. For how many homeless people did panhandling represent
most or all of their income? 2.2%. How successful are they? Despite press
stories of "genius" level panhandlers who receive hundreds of dollars, the
average take is $7.00 per month. Experiments by Berkeley students in a
homelessness class found that in a "jaded" city like San Francisco the take
was very low: under $4.00 in one day. In a city unused to panhandlers, like
Thousand Oaks, a student received $20.00 in a few hours. (If you'd like to
repeat their experiment, follow the protocol of our structured experience).
On what are the fruits of panhandling most often spent? Tobacco, alcohol,
or drugs. Let some former homeless people who have panhandled tell you
about it.

In sum, a small percentage of homeless people panhandle; not all
panhandlers are homeless; the take is small; most of the take is used for

    Is Panhandling Moral?

Many homeless people feel strongly themselves that panhandling is immoral.
For example, Lars Eighner in his book Travels with Lizbeth avoids
panhandling at all cost and prefers "dumpster diving" instead. Perhaps it
was the humiliation of asking for help and receiving a refusal, or perhaps
it was the stigma of not working for what he received, but Eighner only
resorted to panhandling when he became absolutely desperate. "Not working"
is the primary criticism of panhandling. Note how this informs the
discussion on the Homelessness Discussion List.

Panhandling does exhibit a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Stark, for
instance, discusses the "marketing strategies" of panhandlers, their
rational decision to locate where people have money in their hands (parking
meters, ATMs, etc.), their "pricing" policies, and the services they give
to their "customers" (the feeling of having done a good deed, or the
opportunity to show their generosity to the poor in front of their date).
The proliferation of homeless newspapers is one attempt to harnass this
entrepreneurial spirit and remove the stigma of "not working." A San
Francisco paper, the Street Sheet, explains how this works. However, the
Toronto Outrider is even more explicit: "We ... have helped hundreds of
panhandlers obtain productive jobs and ended the scourge of panhandling for
the communities we serve." The motivation is not always to give a new job
to panhandlers, but to end a "scourge" to the community.

However, another way to view this issue begins with the question, "How is
panhandling different from charitable solicitation?" If it is OK for a
Salvation Army "Santa Claus" to ask for donations for homeless people, why
can't a homeless person ask for a donation directly? Your attempt to answer
this question may bring you to the second "moral concern" offered by some.

If panhandlers tend to use the money for tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, am I
simply contributing to their problems by giving them spare change? What if
I don't use any of these substances; do I really want to "enable" someone
else's use? This is really a "donor" concern for which two solutions have
been offered: one by some agencies that serve homeless people; one by
cities who have concerns about homeless people congregating in business
districts. The International Union of Gospel Missions speaks, as an example
of the former, with its guidelines for helping homeless people: "Never give
cash to a homeless person." The Rev. Steve Burger, their Executive
Director, suggests that you buy food items instead of giving to
panhandlers. What do you think of these suggestions?

The City of Berkeley offers an example of a community's response to
panhandling through its Berkeley Cares voucher program. In the latter,
donors may buy $0.25 vouchers from local merchants and hand them out as
they will to panhandlers. These vouchers can only be redeemed for food, bus
tokens, or for washing clothes at some laundromats.

Are either of these approaches open to criticism? If so, what are their
weaknesses? Is the donor perspective the best way to view this "problem"?
Considering the donee's perspective, why might "self-medicating" be more
important than eating for some homeless people?

What Vouchers Do and Don't Do

While vouchers do eliminate "donor anxiety" about the use of the proceeds,
they actually only control the end user. Like Food Stamps they become
fungible, i.e., exchangeable, for cash on a black market. Although vouchers
allow donors to donate and enjoy the pleasures of giving, they also
represent a "supply-side" attempt to dry up "cash" available to panhandlers.
Confronted by a scarcity of cash, some panhandlers might be induced to move
on. If donors talked with their donees they might also learn that vouchers
cannot be used for needed items like pet food and that few merchants
actually redeem them. Ultimately, vouchers are "paternalistic" in that they
impose the donor's value system on the donee. Will vouchers really
accomplish what Prohibition did not, end the use of alcohol?

      The Public Debate over "Aggressive" Panhandling

A letter dated March 2, 1996 to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle
is typical of the sentiments of many city dwellers:

        Having endured years of non-stop panhandling literally
        from one end of San Francisco to the other, I offer an
        ingenious suggestion for "Da Mayor": Why not create a
        "Beggar-Free Zone" somewhere in the city? (Union Street,
        Upper Market are two places that come to mind.) With a
        "Beggar-Free Zone," hardworking, tax-paying citizens of
        this fair city, and for that matter anywhere in the Bay
        Area, can come to this "zone" to shop, eat out, go to a
        movie, etc. without the fear/dread of being harassed by
        this human waste.

        I think it is high time that Silly Hall start thinking
        about us now. Just a suggestion, politically incorrect
        as it is.

Among the issues this letter raises is the "unaesthetic" quality of
shopping when panhandlers are present. Because downtown merchants often
fear that the presence of panhandlers drives shoppers away to suburban
malls, attempts are made to criminalize begging. The Stanford Homelessness
Action Coalition reports that of 80 businesses surveyed in Palo Alto 98%
felt panhandling was a problem. Further, 94% would support legislation
against "aggressive panhandling." Among the suggestions that businees
people offered:

    1.Educate people not to give panhandlers money;
    2.Ticket people who give money to pamhandlers.

Jeffrey Leiter, former mayor of Berkeley, founder of the Downtown Berkeley
Association, and an advocate for an anti-panhandling ordinance, averred
that although "Being Berkeley we do not want decorum and order, we do
require adequate civil behavior and consideration for others" (East Bay
Express (2/25/94): 18).

San Diego Ordinance 52.4001 (you'll need to enter this number when you make
the next link. Remember it!) is an example of such an anti-panhandling law.

If the arguments in favor of panhandling legislation can be summarized as:

    1.Panhandlers are aesthetically unpleasing to urbanites;
    2.Panhandlers detract from downtown business;
    3.The behavior of panhandlers is uncivil;

then what arguments can possibly be adduced against it?

If, like the city of San Diego, you make a distinction between "passive"
and "aggressive" panhandling, how do you kno wwhich is which? The East Bay
Express tells the story of a Berkeley banker who believed   he had been
"aggressively panhandled" a hundred times. He counted panhandlers who had
said "Excuse me" and "Have a nice day" in a sarcastic way as "aggressive"
((2/25/94): 17-18). D. H. Myers, who was once homeless himself, argues that
this very subjectivity opens the door for false accusations and incivility
in turn to homeless people.

Civil libertarians assert that anti-panhandling laws curb free speech.
Broadly worded ordinances might then prevent "legitimate" organizations
from soliciting donations on the street or from door-to-door.

There is no evidence that panhandlers as a class are more prone to commit
violent street crimes. If this is so, such laws are ineffective in
enhancing personal security. Rather they serve only a cynical political
purpose: pandering to voters' fears.

San Francisco State Prof. Beverly Overbo asks: "How can anyone trust a city
where people who are starving ... can't ask for help?"

In sum, these arguments are offered against anti-panhandling laws:

    1.They precipitate incivility to poor people;
    2.They restrict free speech;
    3.They are ineffective;
    4.They unravel two threads from the fabric of community: trust and

    What's Really the Problem Here?

Discouraging people to give and replacing cash with vouchers represent
"supply-side" controls on panhandling. Shifting panhandlers to newspaper
sales and outlawing panhandling represent "demand-side" controls. Newspaper
sellers get out of the panhandling market. Panhandling laws outlaw the
market itself.

But what really is the problem here? What causes poor people to imagine
that panhandling is a solution in the first place? What prevents our search
for responses to these causes?


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