UPDATE: Thanks to Jessica Andrews, I have now had the opportunity to read the ordinance on roadside solicitation. It very nearly outlaws roadside solicitation altogether. This means that the Herald-Sun article was sadly misleading – possibly even outright inaccurate. Although I wish that the change.org petition itself had some salient facts about this legislation in the header, so that people could be more informed before signing, I have decided to sign it. Durham is not Richmond, and there are sadly few opportunities for pedestrian encounters between the homeless population of Durham and those who have more resources.
Though I continue to believe (as laid out below) that begging at its best should be a community building activity, it does not follow that those who have no option but to beg should be denied any means to an income simply because urban sprawl renders only roadside begging feasible.
In politics, this would be called flip-flopping. But as a Christian, I have other categories that affirm that it is a virtue to change my mind when love compels me.
THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. – so when it comes to thinking about homelessness, I am a city girl. When I was old enough to go on excursions into the city on my own or with friends, I would pack a number of sandwiches and some fruit, and allow plenty of time for conversation with panhandlers on the sidewalks between the Metro station and wherever it was I was going.
Later, when I went to college in Richmond, Virginia, I encountered homeless and generally vagrant people regularly, as I walked to class or to the grocery store or to the post office. A smoker at the time, most often I would share a cigarette with someone I ran into on the sidewalk, and we would talk about the poor mental health facilities in the city or the Vietnam War or blues harmonica or whatever else was most on their mind before shaking hands or hugging, and continuing on our respective ways. I was late to class more often than I was on time.
So I have to admit, I am not a big fan of roadside solicitation. No one learns anything about each other (except, I guess, some handful of dense car owners who discover that poor people actually exist – though these individuals are usually sufficiently dense to rationalize that said panhandlers are not actually poor.) Community is not built. Connections are not made. Physical contact is absent. It is a fast transaction: I can assuage my guilt about my advantages by holding a dollar bill out the window. Or I can ignore the person who is standing there looking at me, on the other side of the glass, feeling hopeless.
More than once, I have seen a man or woman separated from the side of the road by a lane of traffic when the light turned green. Literally in the path of cars coming off the highway. And I have been angry that there are so few interfaces between people of different classes on foot that roadside begging has seemingly become the only solution.
I follow Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on Twitter, and today he tweeted: “pls join us in challenging Durham’s anti-begging ordinance.” I was running errands all day, and didn’t have time to click through to the change.org petition and read more, but I was concerned – an anti-begging ordinance!? How awful! Later on Facebook, his status read in part, “Our fair city has decided to make it illegal to be a beggar in Durham’s chief shopping districts. No one wants to be reminded of someone else’s need when they’re on their way to buy a plasma screen TV or a new pair of jeans.” He included a link to a blog entry he had written for Patheos on the subject – and I bookmarked it for later, and headed off for lunch with a friend.
As I was driving to Saladelia, I remembered the times that I have been stopped in that parking lot (near a bus stop) and asked for money, and how that has led to conversations. I even ran into a friend from church that way one night – it was dark and he didn’t recognize me at first, but then we hugged and caught up with one another. I remembered how few those interactions have been over all since moving to Durham – what a sprawly city we are. I thought about how many people simply hop in their cars to get from one place to another, and never run into one another on the streets. I thought about the connections I used to make in Richmond, and thought that the begging problem in Durham was a complex one, created by the very existence of places like Southpoint mall (or, as a theologian friend of mine would have it, “The Death Star”), that have total control over their parking lots and fake streets. I wondered if the only choices were roadside begging or no begging at all.
And I longed for some of my old smoking buddies from Richmond.
After lunch, I hurried to my first errand, and there, in front of the store at the strip mall, next to the long line of clearance baskets, was a man leaning up against the wall with unkempt facial hair and a very heavy army surplus coat and a knit stocking cap. He was next to several shopping carts. All of them were empty but the one his hand was resting on – that one held a duffle bag and sundries.
It was the opportunity I had prayed for, in a way, but he was a person, not my personal answer to prayer. I didn’t want to just walk up like I had a right, but I didn’t want to ignore him either. I didn’t know what to do, exactly. I couldn’t remember. Or I’m richer now, more distanced. Either way, I was embarrassed about my ineptitude. I started at the clearance baskets farthest to him, and found a number of interesting items, and as I came closer to him with my hands comically full of stuff, I said to him sheepishly, “Guess I ought to have taken a cart after all!”
He pushed one of the empty ones towards me, saying, “I think this is one of theirs – why don’t you take this one?” And we began talking about — everything.
I remembered as I talked to him one of the great things about talking to homeless people: being reminded that they are people. Each person is different, but I have yet to meet a homeless person who is from central casting. Like any other person, this man was not magically wise, but he did have some wise things to say. He was not entirely insane, but he did have some unreasonable expectations and overwrought fears. He hadn’t given up on life, but he had hopes and dreams, along with a recognition of how he had sabotaged them at times. He wasn’t completely ignorant, but he did have one or two appalling prejudices and gross misconceptions. He wasn’t an absolute fountain of wit, but he had a good line now and then. (I especially liked this one: “I suppose if I win the lottery, then I’ll become a Republican.”) He was a mixed bag – like any of us. And like any of us, the conversation we shared was a conversation that neither of us could have had with anyone else. Two children of God, known intimately and intimately loved, enjoying one another’s company.
As it happens often in these types of situations, he didn’t ask for money until we’d been talking more than 5 minutes, and we kept talking for many more minutes after I had given him some. More than 45 minutes, actually. It was the first time in years that I experienced the realization that I was going to have to be the one to bring the conversation to a close, because he really had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Though, practically speaking, he needed to cut me loose in order to have any hopes of collecting any more money that day. We exchanged names, and shook hands, and promised to pray for one another.
I thought about Jonathan’s Facebook status. Would I see this gentleman in that strip mall again? Or would the ordinance make such meetings impossible?
Finally, after getting Hannah in bed tonight, I had the chance to check out Jonathan’s blog post about the City or Durham’s anti-begging ordinance. It included an excerpt from an article in the local paper that seemed to suggest that what had actually been outlawed was panhandling in medians. Huh. So I clicked through to the article itself, and discovered a few items of interest:
- Panhandling has been banned only in medians. Begging anywhere else is still allowed. Even on the side of the road.
- This is not just the case in the “shopping districts,” but everywhere in Durham.
- The vote took place in mid-December. The ban is already in effect.
- In addition to the ban, city council also voted to discontinue requiring licenses for roadside begging. So a $20 fee was eliminated.
Now, perhaps there is a slippery slope here that I am not appreciating — after all, Jonathan lives in community with people living in poverty. He is in touch with what goes on in Durham, especially among the least, the last, and the lost. But my ears don’t hear, “war on the poor” when they hear “don’t panhandle in the medians – stick to the roadsides.” Not that there aren’t plenty of ways that we keep the poor ground down into the dust in our culture. Three strikes you’re out laws and not enough public defenders, that’s a war on the poor. Locating the dirtiest factories in the poorest areas, that’s a war on the poor. But outlawing begging in medians sounds like a reasonable safety measure. Though in full disclosure (as I made clear above) my feelings about roadside begging carry a lot of baggage about our failure to be community and reinforcing the power dynamics between the car-haves and the car-have-nots.
Before I sign the petition, I need to head over to Ninth Street or downtown or back to the strip mall. I want to have some conversations first hand with the people most affected by it. And then I think I’ll head over to Urban Ministries of Durham and see what the staff there think, too. Because sometimes hastily signing a petition has served the same purpose for me that poking a dollar bill through a half open window has for the tribe of car people passing the roadside beggars – with little effort required on my part, I get to feel better while still getting to keep my distance. The time has come to re-engage with those on the margins – especially as I am sufficiently far from the margins now to make such engagement that much more effortful.