Monday, July 05, 2004

Jesus on Panhandling?

Last month, the city of Durham, North Carolina began a "crack down" on panhandling, making it a crime to beg between sunset and sunrise. Durham is just one example of a slew of cities, San Francisco among them, which are restricting panhandling.

Would Jesus support such measures? Absolutely not.

The first key to understanding Jesus' teaching on panhandling lies in understanding one of the most misunderstood of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven." Lk. 6.20. First, the translation of the Greek word "ptōchos" as poor is problematic. "Ptōchos" clearly does not mean "working poor" or someone who, through struggling, is still barely able to cobble together the necessities. The Greek word for people making a bare subsistence living is "penēs." "Ptōchos," on the other hand, is used to describe the propertyless poor -- the jobless poor who have been pushed into homelessness and begging. (John Crossan's Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography contains a discussion of the two different Greek words for "poor" at page 61.)

But why does Jesus say such destitutes are blessed? Are all beggars nice people? Of course not. The destitute, the homeless, are blessed because they are innocent. Only those who have been chewed up and spit out by the unjust system -- those who don't benefit from the system -- can claim to be innocent of its structural oppressions.

If this aphorism doesn't throw panhandlers in a different light, perhaps Jesus' command in Mt. 5.42 will. Jesus tells the crowds in the Sermon: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."

Jesus tells us, then, that the poor are not to be scorned, feared, or arrested. Rather, they are to be revered as innocents. Jesus teaches us not only that we must tolerate (rather than ban) panhandling but also that we must give to every panhandler we meet. Given that it is the system which we all perpetuate that put them in the position, it is the very least we can do.


At 9:20 AM, Blogger Lost In NY said...

Add Dallas, Texas to that list too (sorry, no link available):

Dallas bans panhandling
Ordinance means street-corner charity drives are out, too


By COLLEEN MCCAIN NELSON / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas City Council banned solicitation near city streets Wednesday in an effort to rein in pushy panhandlers.

The new ordinance also will effectively end street-side charity drives, including Dallas firefighters' annual "Fill the Boot" campaign.

Council members lamented the unintended consequences of the ordinance but decided that the benefits of banning solicitation outweighed the harm that would come to charitable groups.

Firefighters and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which is the beneficiary of "Fill the Boot," sought an exception to the ordinance to allow street-corner fund-raisers. But city attorneys told the council that the ban is an all-or-nothing proposition.

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The ordinance will prohibit panhandling or sales of any kind on public property near Dallas streets. Solicitation and begging also will be outlawed within 25 feet of banks, ATMs, self-service gas pumps and car washes, pay phones and public transportation stops.
The ordinance clearly bans panhandling and charity drives that depend on volunteers who approach motorists idling at intersections. But restrictions on other fund-raising activities, such as standing street-side, waving a sign for a car wash, are less clear-cut.

In such cases, officers would determine whether the person was distracting drivers or disrupting the flow of traffic, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson said.

Violations of the ordinance will be punishable with fines up to $500.

Jim Harris, an attorney for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, asked the council to amend the ordinance to allow a permitting process for groups such as the firefighters. He cited other city ordinances that allow solicitors to apply for permits.

But city attorneys argued that the ordinance must be enforced consistently. Restricting solicitation is a matter of public safety, Assistant City Attorney Lisa Christopherson said.

"Just because a person has a piece of paper doesn't make him any safer in the streets," Ms. Christopherson said. "We recommend a content-neutral ban that applies to everyone."

Safety hazard?

Mr. Harris said he was unaware of any compelling evidence that solicitors present a hazard.
"Is there really a problem in the city of Dallas?" he said. "I'd submit to you that there is not."

Council members strongly disagreed.

"There is a huge problem in Dallas," Mayor Laura Miller said. "That's why we're talking about this issue."

She called panhandlers a "gigantic public safety hazard. We've got people knocking on people's windows, making people afraid."

Several council members said they had hoped for a compromise that would allow firefighters to continue their fund-raiser. "Fill the Boot" raised $323,000 last year.

This year's campaign is scheduled for April 7-12. The ordinance will take effect April 15.

Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill encouraged his colleagues to ignore city attorneys' advice and to allow a permitting process.

"I love and respect the lawyers," he said. "But don't hide behind the lawyers."

But council member Lois Finkelman asked why the city employed a stable of attorneys if the council could simply disregard their opinions. She said the council should have confidence in its legal staff.

Council members pledged their support to the MDA and promised to assist with future "Fill the Boot" efforts. But council member Sandy Greyson acknowledged that the fund-raiser could falter under the new ordinance.

"I know that our intentions are good," she said. "But over time, the reality is it probably is going to harm you."

Dorothy Reyna told council members that money from the firefighters' fund-raiser has allowed her 17-year-old son to go to summer camp and has helped defray medical costs.

Without the charity drive, "we would have no way of taking care of these kids," she said.

Business perspective

Representatives of Dallas business associations told the council that panhandlers are a deterrent to economic development.
Greg Schooley, executive director of the West End Association, said aggressive beggars are a turnoff to tourists. He cited examples of panhandlers who approached restaurant patrons sitting on outdoor patios during the Big 12 basketball tournaments. When diners didn't give handouts, the beggars spit on them, Mr. Schooley said.

"We work very hard to be a positive, clean face for the city of Dallas," he said.

Council members voted 12-1 to impose the ban. Maxine Thornton-Reese was the only one who opposed the measure.

Ms. Miller, a leading proponent of the ordinance, left City Hall during the council meeting to attend a campaign event. She announced before departing that she supported the ordinance, but she was absent when the council voted on the issue.

Council member Leo Chaney Jr. told his colleagues that proliferation of panhandlers is a symptom of a larger problem.

"It's because of our ineptness in dealing with our homeless population – that's what this is about," he said.

Mr. Chaney said police must make a concerted effort to enforce the ordinance.

Otherwise, "all we're doing is a political show," he said.

On Monday, Police Department officials outlined the time that would be required of officers enforcing the ordinance. Issuing a citation would take about 15 minutes, officials said.

If a person cited for soliciting has a sign, the officer must take the placard and deposit it in the department's property room.

Off-duty officers who must appear in court will be paid overtime.

Mr. Hill questioned whether enforcing the ban would be time well spent and said he would ask the Police Department and the city attorney's office to keep an accounting of how much staff time is required to implement and enforce the ordinance.


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