Some people are surprised to learn that I don’t usually give money to panhandlers. It isn’t because I don’t care about those experiencing homelessness. It is because 1. Working in homeless services (shockingly) doesn’t pay me enough to pull out my wallet every day, 2. I don’t carry cash nearly as often as I should, and 3. I can’t give away money to the clients at my job, even if I could afford to.
So today, when I gave a dollar bill to a guy with a sign and a battered Red Sox cap, it wasn’t because I thought it would end homelessness. It was because I am so disturbed by the legislation before Baltimore City Council this month that attempts to make panhandling illegal that I wanted to give a dollar away before it becomes too late. Also, I am really rooting for the Red Sox.
Several Baltimore laws already prohibit aggressive panhandling, but a new proposal would encourage police to put increased pressure on individuals asking for money. The bill would outlaw panhandling within ten feet of any restaurant or storefront. Anyone who has spent time in Baltimore will realize that this essentially outlaws asking for money in all of downtown. Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, who supports the bill, thinks these rules will put an end to what she deems the “atrocious behavior” of asking people on the street for spare change.
You’ve likely seen the cardboard signs, “Looking for Work,” or “Homeless, Anything Helps.” To me, these signs are people silently screaming for help, people who have run out of options. Asking for help is what we teach children to do at a young age, and yet Baltimore is considering taking away that right. If visitors to the downtown area don’t want to give money, they can — and should — calmly say no. Panhandling will not put an end to homelessness. It has no place in the The Journey Home, nor is it anyone’s ideal source of income. But on a day when someone is hungry, or needs bus fare, or shampoo, is it wrong to ask your neighbors for some help?
I often hear that people are afraid the person they donate to will use the money for drugs or alcohol. More than once I have accompanied an individual into a sandwich shop or a grocery store and picked up the tab (as has Change-Engine contributor Robyn Stegman), but when I give cash, I don’t ask questions about where it is going. Giving money away is my choice, but how someone spends it is not.
If “atrocious behavior” means buying something to eat, talking to strangers, or asking for help, then I’d suggest that we are all guilty — and I’d hope for more, not less, of this behavior in Baltimore.