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Free speech goes begging in Grand Rapids

Busy 28th Street in Grand Rapids is prime commercial real estate, lined with a miles-long procession of strip malls, big box stores and the occasional gas station.

It is also fertile ground for a man named Alex, 23, who stood on a corner recently holding a cardboard sign that read in part: “Struggling Family Anything Truly Is A Blessing.”

Asked what brought him to this corner, Alex told a complicated story about recent troubles that included his car breaking down, the theft of his stepfather's truck and a bank’s repossession of his grandfather's house – where he and family had been staying.

“I would rather not be here,” he said. “This is not something I want to do for the rest of my life.”

For now, Alex, his mother and stepfather were living in a nearby motel. He said he needed to scrape up $50 a day to pay the bill. “I can usually make that,” he said.

Across the street, in Kentwood, Alex would be banned from soliciting money. Kentwood, like nearby Alpine Township, Walker, Grandville and Wyoming, prohibits panhandling to motorists. Cascade Township, a Grand Rapids suburb, and Norton Shores, a Muskegon suburb, are also weighing panhandling measures.

In June, Grand Rapids commissioners deadlocked 3-3 on an ordinance to ban begging from motorists, leaving panhandlers like Alex free to ply their trade at street corners around the city.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell – a former pastor of a street ministry in Grand Rapids – calls it a “difficult issue. As a pastor, I am aware of the problems and I want to be sensitive to the problems of the poor.”

Heartwell expects the city commission to reconsider a panhandling ordinance within months. That could include not only a prohibition on panhandling from motorists but a ban on panhandling within 15 feet of a public restroom, bank or ATM machine, bus stop or from anybody waiting in line to enter a building.

He believes such restrictions might be a reasonable compromise “between the needs of the poor and concerns raised by business owners.”

Commerce vs compassion

And so communities across Michigan continue to wrestle with an issue that poses tricky legal and moral questions, particularly in the wake of a 2013 federal appeals court ruling that struck down a Michigan law criminalizing begging. The court said that charitable solicitations are protected under the First Amendment, whether someone is seeking money for themselves (a panhandler) or a third party (such as a charity seeking donations).

The Sixth Circuit ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of two Grand Rapids panhandlers. The ACLU has fought anti-begging laws in the state for more than a decade.

In striking down the Michigan law, the court noted that cities may regulate begging, but any such restrictions must be “narrowly drawn” to preserve First Amendment freedoms.

In February, the ACLU filed another suit to overturn a similar ordinance in Waterford Township in Oakland County. The township had replaced a blanket ban on begging with one that restricts panhandling in specific locations, including near banks, within 20 feet of an ATM and on private property where signs are posted to prohibit begging.

Panhandling is but one component of the larger issue of poverty, with 1.6 million Michigan residents now falling into this category. The Center for Michigan’s recent report, “Michigan Speaks: The Citizen’s Agenda for the 2014 Elections,” identified poverty as one of the top issues facing political candidates this year. In polling and community conversations with more than 5,500 people,residents across all demographic groups said fighting poverty should be an urgent priority for the state.

Attorney Miriam Aukerman of ACLU Michigan said the organization continues to monitor how communities deal with panhandling.

“There is nothing wrong with cities addressing issues of conduct and traffic,” she said. “It's when they focus on speech. The problem comes with any kind of ordinance that focuses on begging.”

Cities get into trouble, she said, when, for instance, they ban panhandlers from approaching motorists, while allowing others to do so. She noted that some towns allow high school kids to wave down traffic for school car washes, or allow Salvation Army volunteers to ring bells on sidewalks. Merchants hire sign-holders to stand on busy corners to attract business.

“People hold up signs for all kinds of messages. The panhandler is communicating a message that people don't necessarily want to hear. But the content of the message cannot be a reason to censor the message.

“Nobody is saying that panhandling is a solution to poverty. What we are saying is that criminalizing panhandling is not a solution to poverty, either.”

To give or not

Aukerman acknowledged it can be argued whether or not giving money to a panhandler is ultimately helpful to that person. But she argued it should be a choice in a free society.

“The person has the freedom to ask and the passerby has the freedom to say no,” she said.

Some homeless advocates argue that handing out cash to panhandlers does them no favors.

“That's really a very unaccountable system of charity,” said Robert Lupton, founder of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta and the author of “Toxic Charity,” a 2011 book that questions deeply held assumptions about how to help the needy. Lupton contends that extending charity with no expectation of something in return erodes both human dignity and capacity.

“Without a personal knowledge of a (panhandler's) individual situation, there's no way that can be an accountable transaction,” he said. “It is for the most part dependency producing and very unhealthy for the recipient and the culture.”

In his book, Lupton recalled a church mission project to dig a well for a remote Honduran village which had no nearby water supply. A year later, volunteers found the well broken. They fixed it. By the following year, it was broken again.

Lupton said the experience typifies the unintended consequences that flow from one-way charity: The villagers believed it was not their well to maintain, but rather that of their saviors.

“The village simply waited until their benefactors returned to fix their well,” he wrote.

A panhandler portrait

Anecdotal reports contend that some panhandlers make upwards of $200 a day, money that critics, including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, assert is most often used to buy drugs or alcohol (In defending the state law, Schuette also argued that panhandlers often lie about being homeless, amounting to a fraud on sympathetic motorists). But studies of panhandling suggest a more complex profile, and more modest returns.

A 2007 study of 107 panhandlers in the Las Vegas area found a median monthly income of $192. About 80 percent said they were homeless; 41 percent reported they were experiencing depression; 38 percent reported substance abuse problems and 17 percent had a mental illness.

A 2013 study of 146 panhandlers in San Francisco found that that 60 percent made $25 a day or less. More than 90 percent reported that they used the money for food and 44 percent for drugs or alcohol. One in four were alcoholics and 32 percent were addicted to drugs. More than 80 percent were homeless; 53 percent said they panhandled seven days a week.

In lobbying for panhandling restrictions, Grand Rapids business owners argued that whatever rights panhandlers enjoy do not extend to the point where they interfere with commerce.

In a letter to city commissioners, restaurateur Johnny Brann Jr. wrote that “business owners have even been told by patrons that they will not shop in certain areas of town due to the amount of transient activity. Customers do not feel safe or comfortable when they know they will be approached by someone from the streets.”

Back on 28th Street, as Alex waited for a motorist to reach out with a donation, he said he was not interested in bothering anyone. And any money he gets, he insisted, goes “straight for the room and food.”

He recalled a motorist who stopped and screamed obscenities at him, telling him to get a job.

“I'm like, 'Dude, you don't know how much I would like to trade places with you.' This is not what I want to do.”

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