“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods,” preached the great 4th-century church father John Chrysostom, “is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.”
One shudders to think what Chrysostom and the millennia-long chain of moral witnesses of which he was a member, from the Prophet Amos to Dorothy Day, would declare in response to West Michigan’s recent outbreak of anti-panhandling proposals. Thoughts of Dante's vision of the fourth circle of hell are not out of place.
As unnecessary as this reminder ought to be, it apparently needs repeating that standing outside with an arm outstretched and a shabby cardboard sign during the dark days of winter or the height of summer is not pleasant. Asking total strangers for a dime, a quarter, or a dollar is often humiliating, especially when one hasn’t had access to basic hygiene or a fresh set of clothes in weeks. Imagine if you can a father of four, down on his luck with unemployment benefits exhausted and no new prospects on the horizon, shot through with shame as he begs from a man who used to be a classmate or a woman who used to teach his kids.
These people are not invisible, and attempting to make them disappear from the streets of Grand Rapids or the corners of Norton Shores through heavy-handed ordinances won’t make them any less tired, hungry or desperate.
Some might object here with the usual litany of caricatures of beggars: They are alcoholic, aggressive, diseased, deceitful, loud, lazy or worse. But so what? Does a human being lose their dignity and right to live because they are flawed? If so, then Heaven help us all. Although it is undeniably true that many of those who are reduced to begging suffer from a range of social, physical, and psychological afflictions, should that not move us to deeper compassion? Should that not compel us to offer aid whenever we can? No, a dollar here or a dollar there won’t fully relieve the plight of the poor, but it may make the unbearable bearable just long enough for some to find the steady, reliable assistance they need before their arduous time on this earth expires.
Others will no doubt say that while they do not personally object to being asked for change, there is a legitimate public-safety hazard which needs to be addressed. Perhaps that’s true in some instances, though it is far from clear how imposing onerous restrictions on panhandling will address it. In the rare circumstance where a beggar becomes threatening or violent, there are already generally applicable rules to address such behavior. Similarly, extant laws already allow private businesses to stop solicitation on their premises, so what’s the problem? In the end the problem isn’t public safety, it’s about keeping up appearances.
To the bourgeois consciousness, panhandlers are an embarrassment. They are walking, talking urban blights whose very existences shatter the illusion of broadly attainable petty prosperity and easygoing, unserious living. In other words, they ruin the “vibe” of a mob anxious to quaff overpriced and overrated microbrews downtown before strolling over to the latest faux ethnic eatery. Contemporary democratic society, after all, is predicated on the fashionable delusion of “equal opportunity” where unconstrained competition for education, status and jobs is meant to guarantee the common good. A poor man plagued with tooth rot and hepatitis C doesn’t fit easily into that enchanting, but fictive, narrative.
Beyond this, the fact of the matter is that anti-panhandling laws are, by and large, unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals – which covers Michigan – last year ruled that broad-blanket laws intended to restrict begging violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. Proponents of the recently suggested anti-panhandling rules argue that because of their ostensibly narrower concern with issues of public safety, rather than banning public begging altogether, it is likely they will pass constitutional muster. Maybe or maybe not.
Mayoral concern over a potential lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, coupled with public outcry, were sufficient to stay the cold hand of Grand Rapids city commissioners from banning begging in a city long known for its deep Calvinist Christian roots and “conservative social values.”
Of course panhandling is not the decisive answer. No one who is compelled by circumstances to engage in the practice would embrace that route over steady employment or, absent that, consistent care from well-directed charitable initiatives or meaningful public assistance. While contemplating the particulars is far beyond the scope of this article, there should be no doubt that we as a society, both in Michigan and throughout the United States, need to thoroughly rethink our economic order – one that pools a vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while leaving so many with not enough to scratch out anything close to a living worthy of someone who holds citizenship in a modern, first-world country.
A sad and desperate plea for an infinitesimal amount of our disposable income hurts. At best, it hurts the conscience, dulled as it often is by the rapid-fire transmission of banalities over Facebook or boutique dabblings which barely last longer than the time it takes for us to tweet about them. The poor will always be with us. Let us not gloss glibly over that reality with the laws as constitutionally suspect as they are immoral.