As Major Cities Crack Down on Panhandling, People of Faith Wrestle With Their Consciences

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By Bobby Ross Jr. 5-26-2017
Image via RNS/Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

Driving to his downtown clothing business, Hans Herman Thun finds it impossible to ignore the beggars.

They catch his attention with handwritten, cardboard signs such as “Homeless and hungry,” “Anything helps! God bless,” and even “I’ll be honest — I could really use a beer.”

Thun, a self-described born-again Christian, works as a tailor for prominent customers, such as University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.

The owner of Hans Herman Custom Tailors said he does his best to help those in need.

“If I’ve got money, and it’s easy for me to get over and give them money, I do,” Thun said. “What the Lord taught me is, I have a responsibility to give. What they choose to do with the money is between them and the Lord, and he can work with them in regards to stewardship.”

But in Oklahoma City, and major cities across the nation, elected officials increasingly are passing ordinances that crack down on panhandling.

Typically, these ordinances make it a crime to approach vehicles, or stand on medians at busy intersections. Supporters tout the ordinances as safety measures designed to protect the public as well as those seeking food or money.

In a number of cities, however, the ordinances are sparking legal battles with civil liberties advocates, who accuse communities of violating free speech rights and treating the homeless as “human blight.” In one week in May, opponents filed lawsuits challenging anti-panhandling laws in Houston; Pensacola, Fla; and the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy.

In this Bible Belt state capital, the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma are suing over a so-called “median safety ordinance.” The law, which took effect last year, “attempts to criminalize everything from panhandling to political speech, and even neighbors talking to one another or walking their dogs in the grass,” said attorney Brady Henderson, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legal director.

“The same way that they look at a piece of property that is in disrepair and say that hurts the value — that hurts the enjoyment of life in the neighborhood — cities sometimes look at someone who is out in a median, who is in scraggly clothes and dirty and unshaven, and they look at that as blight,” Henderson said.

Earlier this month, Lexington, Ky., moved toward passing an anti-panhandling ordinance, after the state’s high court struck down a previous measure. Meanwhile, Little Rock, Ark., began enforcing its prohibition on begging or soliciting in medians and roadways after two years of legal questions.

For many people of faith across the nation, the ordinances are igniting fresh debates over age-old questions: Does sparing a dime — or a dollar — at a street corner really make a difference? Or would donating the same amount to a charity serve to improve more lives?

“That is a complex issue,” said Paul Wilkerson, executive director of the River City Ministry in North Little Rock, Ark., which operates a day shelter, a food pantry, a clothing closet, and medical and dental clinics. “We do have strong feelings about it, and when we talk to churches, we encourage them not to contribute to the folks panhandling. The vast majority of that money goes for drugs and alcohol.

“However, it is an emotional issue as well as a spiritual concern,” Wilkerson added. “So we always tell people not to feel bad about giving if the Spirit moves them to give. Ultimately, people have to live with their conscience and answer to the Lord.”

In addition to passing ordinances, some municipalities try to nudge residents toward nonprofit giving.

In Milwaukee, Wis., signs posted by the city urge: “Keep the Change. Don’t Support Panhandling. Help more by giving to charity.”

James Haley, director of Faith Builders Community Teams in Milwaukee, said he supports the city’s efforts to direct panhandlers to homeless shelters, food pantries, and nonprofit organizations.

“Does it mean we can’t help people? I don’t think that’s what the ordinance is trying to do,” said Haley, who organizes an outreach called “After Dark” that delivers meals to people living on sidewalks and under bridges.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and dozens of interfaith leaders this month launched a public awareness campaign dubbed “Meaningful Change — Not Spare Change.”

The idea is that helping — in the form of giving to panhandlers — actually can hurt if it prolongs a person’s homelessness, said Amy Kelley, director of family ministries at a United Methodist church in Texas’ largest city.

The ACLU of Texas is suing over Houston’s recently passed anti-encampment and anti-panhandling ordinances. But Kelley said she supports the restrictive measures, “as long as there is a plan in place to provide affordable housing, drug programs, and whatever else it takes to assimilate our fellow man/woman into a sustainable living situation.

“Often, these encampments or tent cities are unsanitary, unsafe, and a breeding ground for drugs and violence,” she added in an email. “This is not the way for our brothers and sisters in Christ to live. … Houston is not only ‘cracking down’ on homelessness and panhandling; Houston is lifting and building up humanity.”

In Lexington, city leaders last month unveiled an “End Panhandling Now” van that picks up homeless people and takes them to job sites.

Rabbi David Wirtschafter said he appreciates the Kentucky city’s effort to help panhandlers find gainful employment, even if he’d prefer a different message — “End Poverty Now.”

At the same time, Wirtschafter warns that not everyone begging on the streets is capable of working a $9-an-hour job.

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Wirtschafter, who leads Temple Adath Israel, just east of downtown Lexington.

The rabbi said he has no problem with anti-panhandling ordinances legitimately concerned with public safety. But someone who stands in front of a public library and peacefully asks for a dollar has that right, no matter how it might make the facility’s patrons feel, he said.

“Citizens don’t have the right not to feel guilty,” Wirtschafter said. “If the presence of a beggar that you choose to pass by and not give money to makes you feel badly, that’s between you and your conscience.”

Here in Oklahoma City, the Rev. Deborah Ingraham, executive director of the Skyline Urban Ministry, fought the anti-panhandling ordinance, which the city council passed 7-2.

Ingraham doesn’t dispute that panhandlers need better, more long-term solutions.

“But you don’t lecture someone who is hungry,” she said. “You give someone who is hungry food. Once they’ve got food, then you can talk to them.”

For his part, Thun, the tailor, who is also board chairman for the Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command, said he has become more comfortable with Oklahoma City’s ordinance.

Panhandlers are resourceful, he said, and remain active and visible at locations not covered by the law.

He respects their plight — and, in at least one case, their honesty.

The guy who wanted money for a beer? Thun gave it to him.

Via Religion News Service.

Bobby Ross Jr. writes for Religion News Service.

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