Drive-by charity is not the answer

As Jesus correctly predicted, the poor will always be with us. And thanks to a federal judge’s ruling last month, it looks like panhandlers in Portland’s traffic medians will be with us, too — for years, if not decades, to come.

People have a right to stand in intersections and ask motorists for money. But that right doesn’t make it right. There are more reasons to believe that giving cash to beggars in the streets is wrong for givers and takers alike.

A Feb. 12 article in The Forecaster revealed one of the biggest reasons why panhandling is a scourge that should be discouraged. Reporter Ben McCanna interviewed a homeless man named Bob Macie, who claims he can make as much as $100 a day holding a sign at intersections.

“If they make this illegal, what do you think is going to happen to the junkies?” Macie said. “They’ll be out robbing people. Right now everybody is happy and content. They’re not arresting anybody for robbery.”

The Forecaster’s police beat section indicates otherwise, but Macie’s rhetorical question is worth pondering. Are handouts to panhandlers essentially payoffs to keep hard-drug addicts from breaking into our cars at night and stealing the change in the cup holder? Is any sane person comfortable with that arrangement?

A week later, BDN blogger Chris Shorr, a staunch defender of panhandling, wrote a post in which he acknowledged, “Sure, some of them take the money that they earn panhandling and spend it on things like cigarettes, weed, booze, and hard drugs, but,” he countered, “many of them put it towards things like food, clothing, and toiletries.”

“I can’t understand why people care so much about what they’re using the money for,” Shorr continued, “especially when absolutely no one is obligated to give them money.”

With all due respect to Shorr, whose concern for the downtrodden is admirable, that’s nonsense. The fact we are free not to give beggars money does not negate the imperative to know what they buy with the cash they do collect.

Trouble is, in reality, we have no practical way of knowing how panhandlers spend their “earnings.” Holding a sign that declares you are sober doesn’t mean you are. If you don’t know whether your dollar will be spent to feed an addict’s deadly habit, it is irresponsible to give it. If you really want to help addicts and alcoholics improve their lives, donate your dollars to the social-service agencies that provide shelter and treatment (and “food, clothing, and toiletries” for free).

Bottom line: Begging in the street is not a practice that should be rewarded, condoned or justified. It does not empower the poor. To the contrary, it fosters a cycle of dependence. Time spent on the median is time not spent looking for work or engaging with social-service professionals who offer the help these people really need.

Last spring, local photojournalist Doug Bruns did a series of interviews and portraits of panhandlers on Portland’s medians that I published in The Bollard. That piece, titled “Cornered,” provoked strong reactions from readers, most of whom were sympathetic to the struggles of Bruns’ subjects.

For this month’s Bollard cover story, “Sweet Home,” Bruns captured the pictures and stories of people — including one of the subjects of “Cornered” — who got off the street and secured housing by engaging with the social-service system. It’s a powerful reminder that although the safety net has holes, it is still capable of lifting people out of desperate circumstances.

Judy, a formerly homeless panhandler profiled (and photographed) by Doug Bruns, who got off the street with the help of social services.

Judy, a formerly homeless panhandler profiled (and photographed) by Doug Bruns, who got off the street with the help of social services.

The problems that most often compel people to beg in public — addiction, mental illness, homelessness — are most effectively addressed by the social-service system we already support with tax money and donations. More can undoubtedly be done to improve that system, but paying panhandlers is not the solution to its shortcomings. By encouraging people not to engage with the system, the practice does more harm than good.

The city’s attempt to force panhandlers off the medians with an ordinance was foolish and, as the judge correctly ruled, unconstitutional. But that doesn’t mean the concerns that prompted it are invalid. It is dangerous to stand on medians, and panhandlers routinely walk into traffic to grab cash, endangering themselves and drivers. Their presence is intimidating to many motorists and detrimental to Portland’s image as a compassionate community.

We are a compassionate community, which is why many panhandlers are here in the first place. But our charity is too often wasted when we deliver it through the car window.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.