The recently-passed city ordinance addressing panhandling and begging in Detroit has been the topic of much conversation. Several city council members were against the ordinance and some, though present at the vote, opted not to vote on it at all. There are valid concerns that ordinances such as these invite abuse by criminalizing the poor and vulnerable. There is a real hazard in using a broad-brush approach in applying rules to any group of people, but it is especially devastating for those whose voices tend not to be valued or heard.
While asking for money from strangers to meet a need is common among those who panhandle, the motives behind “the ask” are varied. There is a propensity to treat everyone who falls under the heading “panhandler” or “beggar” the same. But the reality is that not all individuals who panhandle are without a place to live, drug addicted, aggressive, or mentally ill. Public awareness of this distinction is an important step in developing comprehensive, lasting solutions that address root causes and eliminate panhandling by eliminating the need to panhandle.
The desire to be able to stand in line for an event, use an ATM, or enjoy a meal without being accosted by someone asking for money or food is not unreasonable. But fines and jail time are temporary fixes that only serve to exacerbate the crisis state of the panhandler and create an avoidable expense for the city.
A comprehensive approach requires us to take into account the relationships among poverty, homelessness, and panhandling. We must continue to explore innovative ways to eliminate the need for individuals to panhandle.
Bolstering support for the agencies that provide various programs and services for the poor is always in order. There are collaborative relationships between the Department of Corrections and helping organizations such as the Detroit Central City Community Mental Health.
Panhandling is not going away because of one ordinance and none of us want to see panhandling continue. At the same time, it is the generosity of those who live, work, and play in Detroit that make panhandling an effective way of getting money in the first place. Selective generosity can help discourage behaviors that may now land individuals in jail. Make it a practice not to support those who violate the ordinance. Doing so may ultimately keep them from jail or fines.
Thrive Detroit was created to restore dignity and provide income stability through micro-enterprise for low income individuals, including those who may panhandle.
We have to do more than scratch the surface by seeking to remove individuals from the streets temporarily. Our solutions must be compassionate, long-term, and sustainable.