The Poor Will Be With You Always

According to the Bible we read that the poor will be with us always (Matt 26.11). That is very sobering thought. Currently poverty is not just a problem in our country but throughout the whole world. With all our technology and economic strength, there yet remains a vast amount of people lacking in basic necessities.

To be sure, a vast number of people choose to be poor. It is a lifestyle choice like any other. No need to worry about an alarm clock. No need to worry about bills. With clothing, food and shelter available at various charities, there often is no worry about survival. States with warm climates and decent state “benefits” are seeing a dramatic increase of homeless people.

But yet, there are plenty of other people for whom homelessness is not a choice but an unwanted reality. And it is for these people our hearts go out: the mentally ill, those who lost their jobs and some who were simply kicked out on the street.

Given that we have, in a sense, two types of poor, in a sense, those “deserving” and those “undeserving”. Trying to separate the two, is nearly impossible for they are so intertwined, like the parable of the tares (Mat 13.29), in which pulling up the bad plants will destroy the good.

The Old Testament economy forbad farmers from reaping the edges and corners of their fields (Lev. 19.9). Nor were they to pick up dropped stalks of grain or grape branches. This provided a means for the poor to glean food. It required a lot of work at the hands of the poor to obtain food. Also, God meant for people to look out for each other when He gave the admonition for His people to love their neighbors (Lev 19.18). But even these measures were not sufficient to eliminate the suffering for much of the population. The country itself often was poor and often the few who had some form of wealth eliminated their obligation by narrowly defining what constituted as their neighbor.

Also, up until more modern times, the sense of family and community was far stronger than it is today. Generations lived within a same household so resources, both physical and economic, pooling together for the benefit of the whole family. The sick and the infirm had a place. But with the modern era, the family fragmented as people scatter across the country, and even the globe, the sense of family and community is largely lost. We no longer look at our neighbor as anything but a stranger who is the responsibility of someone else. But still even in this somewhat “idyllic age” of our nation’s past…people hungered. People lacked meaningful work.

With the 20th century we see the government taking on the role of the family, the local community and the religious community as well. With taxes the government now spends billions of dollars for various programs. To be sure, our nation has seen many successes with these programs. I doubt that you or I personally know of one person that does not have food to eat or a place to live. Those that do not work very often receive subsidies from the government. Soup kitchens and flop houses exist still.

The great social programs, while they raised the living standard of the poor, they do not seem to have made a dent in reducing the number of the poor. So much money spent with so little success. Poorness seems the Gordian Knot, a problem that cannot be solved. So where does that leave us? Should we give up?

While the poor may be with us always, that does not excuse us from not caring and not acting. While we cannot solve the problem on a global basis, we may solve it on a case-by-case basis. You and I may not “save the world” we can help one person. Not being able to everything does not excuse us for doing nothing.

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Who Gives Money to Panhandlers?

In the U.S. Department of Justice’s Guide on Panhandling, a profile of the people who give money to panhandlers is given. Their research shows that:

  • Panhandlers’ audiences are mostly made up of people who do not have a lot of money, since affluent types will avoid area where panhandling occurs
  • People that report giving money to panhandlers ranges from 10% to 60% depending on the area
  • Students are more likely to give money to the panhandlers 50%-60%
  • Women and minorities are more likely to give money to panhandlers; couples tend to be a target
  • Tourists often give money to panhandlers
  • Panhandlers often ask people with grocery bags, since they are likely to give money out of guilt
  • Panhandlers try to create friendships with their donors

What do you think? Do you give money to panhandlers? Why or why not? If you do give money, what approaches have been successful?

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Panhandling and the Police Part I – Defining Panhandling

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a guide to help train police officers to deal with panhandlers. This guide, titled Panhandling by Michael Scott, is helpful for understanding the nature of panhandling and the way in which the executors of the law look at panhandling.

The first task in the guide is to define ‘panhandling.’ Scott defines panhandling as begging for money, or a donation, sometimes in exchange for nominal services like window washing, helping park, or carrying groceries. Scott writes that there are two types of panhandling:

Passive Panhandling – “Soliciting without threat or menace, often without any words exchanged at all.” (1)

Aggressive Panhandling – whereby one “is soliciting coercively, with actual or implied threats, or menacing actions. If a panhandler uses physical force or extremely aggressive actions, the panhandling may constitute robbery.” (1)

By dividing panhandling into two categories – passive and active, police can then determine what sorts of panhandling activities they will let slide, and what sorts of panhandling activities they will prosecute. If you’ll recall from our discussions of panhandling laws and the First Amendment, passive sorts of panhandling are constitutionally protected. So, police may allow someone sitting in a doorway holding a cup remain, but arrest someone who is badgering passersby for money. According to Scott’s report, panhandlers tend to be territorial, and they exhibit disputes over territory.

Just as there are two types of panhandlers, there are two types of social perspectives towards panhandlers.  These are:

The Sympathetic View – where the view is that panhandling is an essential component for survival of the destitute and, not surprisingly TheUnsympathetic View – the idea that panhandling contributes to crime and civil disorder without addressing the underlying problems experienced by the homeless. (2)

Scott also takes care to distinguish panhandling from other street activities. These activities include public intoxication, disorderly conduct, harassment, pickpocketing, ATM robberies, street entertainment and vending without a license, and rummaging through trash. (3)

Different factors contribute to panhandling. Because panhandlers can intimidate passersby, the time of day, vulnerability level, level of street traffic, and appearance of the panhandler all go into how successful and how intimidating an individual panhandler might be. (3-4) Most panhandlers are single males, in their 30s-40s, unemployed, have substance abuse issues, and a high school education. Most panhandlers do not have mental illness, and they are equally likely to be victims of crime as they are to be criminal offenders. (5-6)

As we have already mentioned in this blog, “only a small percentage of homeless panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.” (6) Panhandlers tend to be strategic about their pitch for money and they opt for panhandling over minimum wage employment.

Panhandling is most common in communities that have a high level of services geared towards those in need. (8)

What do you think about all of this? Is the distinction between passive panhandling and aggressive panhandling useful? Does the distinction matter? Should we be more lenient towards panhandlers who are passive in their approach? Why do you think that panhandling is more common in communities with social services present? Is panhandling just as profitable as a minimum wage job?

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Lawsuit: Homeless vs. State of Utah

According to ABC 4 News in Salt Lake, the homeless are suing for being cited for – what else but panhandling.  Their rhetoric argues that because Salvation Army bell ringers are allowed to ask for money during the Christmas season, that either panhandling should be allowed or that bell ringers should also be cited.

Three homeless people, cited for panhandling while using a sign visible to a passing vehicle.  The bell ringers also use signs (those red cauldrons) and they are visible, often, to passing vehicles.  Thus, argues Brian Barnard, the lawyer involved in the case, the Salvation Army ought also be cited.  His ultimate hopes are that this law will be deemed unconstitutional. author Josie Raymond argues that the panhandlers ought to be visible, and not prosecuted for being needy. Her argument centers on the fact that “having the homeless in plain view keeps people from forgetting they exist.”

Like in my last post on Chicago panhandling laws, the question is whether or not putting an end to panhandling – or at least discouraging panhandling – steps on the first amendment rights of the panhandler. Because the law is only enforced on a case-by-case basis, and it is not equally applied to all who use signs in advertising, Bernard believes that it is infringement on the rights of Patty Eagle, Jackie Sanchez, and Terry Lee Wilkinson – the three panhandlers involved in the case.

What do you think about this case? Do the panhandlers have something when it comes to their lawsuit, or is it a bunch of hot air?

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Chicago Panhandler Laws and Freedom of Speech

In this blog, we’ve been talking a lot about the various activities of Chicago’s panhandlers. What are the laws, if any, regulating these guys?

Before discussing the laws associated with panhandlers in Chicago, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a panhandling lawsuit occurring in November, 2003.  This was a class-action lawsuit that, according to, involved anyone arrested or ticket to panhandling between the years of 1999 and 2003.  The city was ordered to give $400 to these panhandlers, for a total of about 5,000 panhandlers. Additional monies were given to the lawyers who had defended the panhandlers in court.

Why were panhandlers awarded money after they had been arrested?

In 1991, a city ordinance was passed 8-4-100, dealing with “Vagrancy,” allowed police to arrest anyone who appeared to be drunk, lewd, or panhandling.  This law was challenged on the grounds of the First Amendment. The idea is that panhandling  is covered by the First Amendment. When arresting someone for asking for money, the argument was, their freedom of commercial speech was being impeded upon.

The First Amendment reads

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So, because the lawyers argued that to arrest someone solely for panhandling was a violation of their First Amendment rights, the ordinance was eventually taken off the books.

In 2004, the Chicago city council passed another ordinance – the “Aggressive Panhandling” ordinance. This ordinance prohibits panhandlers from hitting people up for cash within 10 feet of ATMs, bus stops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants,  parked or stopped vehicles, and bank entrances. It is also illegal, according to an Evanston, IL flier for panhandlers (Pdf link) to:

  • panhandle within 15 seconds of a person leaving an ATM
  • repeating panhandling requests to stationary people who have refused the request
  • touching a person being solicited by the panhandler
  • blocking the path of the solicited individual
  • following the solicited person during or after a panhandling request
  • using profane or abusive language towards the solicited individual
  • making or acting in a manner that causes the solicited individual to feel as though they have been harassed.

Lawmakers argue that the aggressive panhandling laws do not violate 1st Amendment rights because they protect the rights of the individual solicited to by the panhandler. Homeless rights advocates argue that the aggressive panhandling laws do still violate the First Amendment right to free speech.

It is also important to note that advocates believe that these laws do little to help anything, as those who are panhandling often do not have the money to pay the fines, which can be up to $500 for a violation.

It is also interesting to note, on the Evanston flier the definition used for panhandling, and the panhandling loophole.  This next part is a word for word quote from the linked Pdf file:

“Panhandling is: any request for an immediate donation of money or other gratuity made in person upon any street, public place or park in the City. This includes but is not limited to seeking immediate donations:

1) By vocal appeal or for music, singing or other street performance, and

2) Where the person being solicited receives an item of little or no monetary value in exchange for a donation, under circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the transaction is in substance a donation.

Panhandling does not include passively standing or sitting or performing music, singing, or other street performance with a sign or other designation that a donation is being sought, without any vocal request other than in response to an inquiry by another person.”

By this definition, there are different concerns that arise.  I’ll enumerate them here:

1) It does seem as though the right to speech is being qualified as a quasi-illicit activity

2) It makes it appear that if I ask my friend for ten bucks while walking down the street, that this activity counts as panhandling, when most people would not consider this activity to be panhandling

3) It also seems that the bell-ringers for the Salvation Army would be considered panhandlers

4) If someone has a sign that says something along the lines of”Give me your money or else,” it would not be considered aggressive panhandling, since the person has only made a sign, and by this definition would not then be panhandling.

It thus seems to me, that if we want a law that allows for free speech, but protects the rights of people not to be harassed by panhandlers, that the definition of what counts and doesn’t count as panhandling would have to be more finely tuned

What do you think about the panhandling laws and the first amendment?

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“The Music Professor” – Or, My Interest in Panhandlers

Since Jeffrey Jones posted about his journey so far with the Chicago Panhandler project, I figured I would post about my interest in panhandlers and societal obligations. During my undergraduate studies, I wrote an honor’s thesis discussing societal obligations to those who suffer – in fact, this topic has formed much of my work in social and political philosophy.  I have found, in my research, that there is much information out there about what citizens owe their country, but when you turn it around and ask “What do countries owe their citizens, more specifically the least-well off of their citizens” the answer gets kind of fuzzy.  The interest began after a trip to San Francisco in 2001 with three of my colleagues to attend the APA (American Philosophical Association) conference and we stayed in a fairly shady/poor area known as “The Tenderloin.” Walking to the conference, we encountered many panhandlers, homeless, and otherwise suffering people.  During the conference, we encountered a man who would be referred to in my honor’s thesis as “The music professor.” Here is the passage from my paper describing him and some of the questions I had after the encounter:

“He approached the steps of the San Francisco Renaissance Parc Hotel.  His left hand gripped a partially crumpled brown bag.  His face begged for shaving, the tip of his beard faded into gray.  His dark visage stared at us, eyes round, brown and unblinking.  His clothing appeared to have been run over by a steamroller, his stench penetrated each nostril.  He reached his empty hand towards us, and said, “I know music. Listen, here’s music.”  He hummed an example of the “blue note” and snapped his empty hand. The man lectured on the history of Jazz, the beats, and the harmonies.   Repeatedly, he stated given different circumstances, he could have been a music professor at Harvard.  It didn’t cross my mind to disagree with him.  Then, just as suddenly as he approached, he held up the paper bag, and said, “If it weren’t for this, I would have been.”  A look of torment filled his face; my colleague and I each offered him what change we found in our pockets.  The “music professor” disappeared back into the nameless, faceless crowd on the street.  We glanced around for our other companions to realize they had dashed into the building.

Days after my encounter with the “music professor,” I reflected upon his situation. His apparent suffering drew out compassion.  I began to speculate as to the origins of this compassion, and whether or not I was morally obligated towards him.  I questioned the cause of his suffering, the reasons he lived on the street.  After weeks of deliberation, a slew of questions came arose:  What about shelters and the programs I kept hearing about?  Shouldn’t the government have an obligation to this man regardless of my obligation towards him? What is the nature of this obligation?” (“Much to Do About Suffering,” April 19 2002, CSU Chico, 1.)

I still have questions about the nature of suffering, how people wind up in the positions they wind up in, and what obligations society has to its citizens on the basis of being a society (collective responsibility). I am more unsure today of how to solve these problems than I was as a young college student. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, so I did encounter panhandlers and the homeless on a semi-regular basis. After attending college in a small town, I attended graduate school in an even smaller town, at Northern Illinois University outside of Chicago. I remember thinking, in relative terms, that Chicago had a much smaller problem with homeless and panhandlers than San Francisco – but this was only based on the areas of Chicago I had been to, just after being in San Francisco.

The question is, and has always been, not how can you help those who want help, but how can you help those who do not want to help themselves?

I hope you will follow this blog and project as it develops and take time to comment on the posts here and participate in an open discussion on panhandlers.

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Panhandler Project Diaries – The Journey

Working on this project is an eye-opening experience. I would like to say that I came to the project with an open mind, but I am not sure how true that is. Raised in a small town, and working in a central-Illinois city numbering less than 100,000, ones perspective is often skewed ( or perhaps corrected) by those experiences.

There are probably fewer panhandlers in the entirety of each of the smaller cities or towns south of I80 than in one block of the Loop. While citizens of the Windy City find these beggars a commonplace nuisance, for many of those visiting, these people are as unusual and interesting as the local architecture. They are as much a part of the scenery as the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field or even Navy Pier.

Last year, after coming home from a photography visit to Chicago, I thought about how interesting these people are and how the topic lends itself to a worthwhile project. We all come to this subject with some sort of feeling. One group is very naive, another group is jaded and there is a majority trying to decide their position on this subject. It is my hope that we (the audience, the writer and me) come to a better understanding of panhandling. Who are these people? What is their story? How does the legal system view them? Where do they live? How do different organizations help these people?

So, join us in this journey; comment, question and even contribute. Through this action maybe all our eyes will be opened.

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