A federal judge recently ruled that hurting people in the State of Utah have the constitutional right to beg on the streets, based on the fact that these people have the right to free speech. Of course, they can not shout "fire!" in a crowded auditorium, but they can stick their hands out to ask for a couple of bucks for their next meal.
I'm sure business associations around the country are grinding their teeth out of frustration. They feel that beggars are an eye-sore and scare away bona-fide paying customers. Who really wants to have a beaten-up tin can shoved in your face on your way to Starbucks for a morning latte? Not Kim Kardashian, who was recently photographed ignoring a homeless man in a wheelchair begging with a Starbucks cup.
And where does that donated change go to, anyway? I was once in line at a Vons supermarket check-stand in Santa Monica when I saw a man who was clearly homeless place on the store conveyor belt a large bottle of Vodka that he was purchasing. I'm sure the whole line of shoppers was thinking the same thing, "What's wrong with this picture?"
Some cities try to discourage panhandling by providing alternatives for altruistic community members who truly want to help people who are homeless. Leaders in the City of Denver created donation stations that were revamped parking meters where the proceeds go to programs that help homeless persons. The beach city of Santa Monica, California set up large piggy banks, in the form of metal dolphin statues, that collect donations for its city-supported homeless programs.
Advocates for our homeless neighbors, however, are applauding this federal verdict. If you are impoverished and living on the streets, you should have the right to ask for help. Many activists would say the very charities that help homeless people perform the same activity - beg for money. There is truth to this conclusion.
Those of us in the charity world don't stand on street corners with a dented tin can asking for spare change. Instead, we use direct mail pieces, fancy web pages, and slick marketing campaigns. Most homeless persons can not compete with a viral marketing campaign that reaches millions of potential donors. Just look at the recent online explosion of support (and critics) of the KONY 2012 campaign.
The more successful charities are simply professional beggars.
So if we are able to publicly ask for money through our Madison Avenue fundraising campaigns that are hidden behind a 501(C)3 nonprofit corporate status, then shouldn't a person struggling to find a meal and home have the right to stand at a freeway off-ramp to ask for some spare change?
Follow Joel John Roberts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joeljohnroberts