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The Future of Begging and Panhandling

Note: I prefer not to attach labels to individuals based upon their current negative behaviors. At any given moment, an individual can decide to do something different, to do something better; so while I may use the term “panhandler” or “beggar,” I am using it in a general sense.

It’s never too early to make a new resolution.  The beginning of autumn still provides ample time to gain momentum on those 2013 resolutions that have grown stale. The seemingly fast approach of the end of 2013 and the beginning of a fresh, new year nudges us toward the ritual of resolving to do good, to do better, to do more. 

While there are certainly no shortage of things that each of us can resolve to do that would lead to good, better, and more in our personal lives, let’s consider extending our individual resolve to  effect something involving our collective experience. I’m referring to our regular interaction with panhandlers, beggars, and those who ask for money in public places. 

It is indeed the generosity of those who live, work, and/or play in Detroit that supports and maintains panhandling in the city.  Approaching or being approached by someone expressing a need for the very basic needs of food and/or shelter is not something that we can easily ignore, nor should we. The feeling of being able to effect even small positive changes in the lives of others is compelling and opens our hearts.  But with these heartfelt acts of generosity, we sometimes find ourselves wondering if we have just become a contributor to a drug, substance abuse, gambling, or other detracting habit. At the same time, we are moved to see beyond the possible scams, lies, and illegal activity, to the basic human right of every individual to food and shelter.  Striking the proper balance is not easy, but perhaps we can resolve to begin the process.

In August of this year, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),  a federal appeals court struck down Michigan’s old law which considered a  person found begging in a public place to be a “disorderly person,” able to be arrested and prosecuted as such.  Far from being a criminal offense, begging, panhandling, or asking for money in a public place is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.  In July of last year (2012), Detroit joined other cities in passing an ordinance that received a positive nod from the Michigan ACLU.  The city’s ordinance is meant to discourage aggressive panhandling in its various forms, which represents only a small fraction of those who practice it.

In spite of the fact that I know putting money in the hands of panhandlers does not solve the greater problem of poverty or the real need of the individual, I still find myself supporting it. But about a year ago I resolved to make a few small changes that are in keeping with my belief in supporting individuals who—if given the opportunity—would do good, would do better, would do more.  I do this by providing an opportunity along with my donation.  I share information about Thrive Detroit Street Newspaper and provide the person panhandling with my business card or a copy of the paper and instructions on how to get started as a vendor.

If you’re reading this, then you know that Thrive Detroit Street Newspaper is based on a successful model used around the world to promote “Dignity over Poverty” by providing income opportunities to those experiencing poverty/homelessness.  When an individual makes a decision to sell Thrive Detroit instead of begging, it is a positive step in the right direction and a decision that warrants support.

When you give a donation to a panhandler, consider increasing your impact by directing them to Thrive Detroit’s office inside the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).  We are located right in the heart of Midtown at 26 Peterboro between Woodward and Cass. Then, if you continue to see that person panhandling after directing them a few times, don’t continue to support them.  Instead, support those you see selling the paper and encourage them to keep it up.  And of course, donate to local organizations that are addressing the drivers of homelessness: poverty, untreated mental illness, etc.  

About a month before his death, I approached the man known as “Dreadlock Mike” about selling the paper. He was in the Midtown Starbucks parking lot and he told me that he was ready to start. I told him that I would have papers for him the next time we met or that he could drop by COTS (a block away) to pick them up. Of course I never saw him again, and was so saddened by the news of his tragic death. 

Detroit’s population of panhandlers is made up of a broad spectrum of individuals in need of various forms of help.  Let’s resolve to work together, directing those who need help to the resources and services that are already in place to help. Ultimately we want to help make panhandling rare and temporary, getting individuals the help that they need to avoid making it a lifestyle.  

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