On a recent radio show, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said he wished panhandling didn’t exist. I agree. But I also wish he better informed himself about the reasons people beg—and do something constructive to address them.
It’s disturbing to come face to face with dire need. I don’t always stop, but when I do, it does make a difference. It affirms that the person asking is a human being with rights and dignity and deserves to be treated as such. It also affirms that I am not the kind of person who simply turns away from someone else’s pain. Maybe it makes a difference in whether that person can eat or take the bus.
But DeBlasio is right that giving spare change will not solve the problem, which is that in 2017, in the richest country on earth, people are so desperate, poor, and marginalized that they are begging in the streets.
DeBlasio said he wished he could make begging illegal, and that he is frustrated that he cannot do this. There’s that pesky First Amendment that protects people’s right to speak in public, even if they are poor. But why would he want to?
How could imposing a $100 or $500 fine on people who are begging for spare change—who obviously can’t pay this—make a difference for the better? How could spending city money on police, prosecutors, courts, and jails to imprison people for begging possibly make sense? Once they come out they will still be desperately poor, only now they’ll have a criminal record. This will make it less likely they will be able to find a job and more likely they will be forced to beg in the future.
In San Francisco a few years ago, business groups got together and commissioned a survey of panhandlers in the city’s Union Square. They found that 60 percent made $25 or less per day, 62 percent were disabled, 82 percent were homeless, and 94 percent used their proceeds to buy food. Only 3 percent said they didn’t want housing.
Yes, some were alcoholics or addicted to drugs (with likely overlap between the two groups), and 44 percent used their proceeds to buy drugs or alcohol. Will fining or jailing someone with that kind of problem help them solve it?
In New York City, researchers found that none of the beggars they encountered were faking their poverty, and that contrary to what DeBlasio said in his radio remarks, they were putting in long hours and were not raking in “easy money.”
We know poverty and inequality are growing problems in America—DeBlasio himself has spoken eloquently about this. This means more and more people have to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table. Over 11 million renter households spend more than half their income on rent—leaving little left over for food, clothing, transportation, child care, or medical care. Some are squeezed out of their homes, doubled or tripled up. And some are asking for help on the street.
While DeBlasio knows he can’t simply outlaw begging, many cities are making it a crime to ask for spare change—or to sleep, sit or even eat in public, even in the absence of indoor alternatives. But by saying he wishes he could—and broadcasting ludicrous comments about beggars “raking in” cash—he is perpetuating exactly the kinds of misinformed attitudes that drive these laws.
Recently, some cities including Chicago and Portland, Maine, have followed the lead of Albuquerque, which pioneered a program to hire panhandlers to help keep the city clean. And they also connect people who need it to other kinds of help. This won’t by itself solve the problem—but it’s a step in the right direction that also sends a constructive message.
The Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, recently launched by over 100 national and local organizations from across the country, calls for smart, cost-effective, and just policies that help people out of homelessness and poverty instead of imposing unfair fines and fees on them. City officials, including NYC councilman Stephen Levin, are starting to join advocates in supporting the campaign. The Mayor should as well.
Begging in the midst of wealth is a sign of severe social injustice. Mayor DeBlasio, a progressive icon for many, can make a difference right now by talking about it that way—and by fighting for laws and policies to right that injustice.