Skirting the reason for panhandling

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“Safety” is the reason given for the panhandling legislation approved by the Cranston City Council last week and now signed into law by Mayor Allan Fung.

But let’s get real.

Indeed, safety is of concern and having people, whether they are homeless looking for a couple of bucks or uniformed firefighters passing the boot for a cause and Little Leaguers looking to raise the funds to attend the championships, puts people in the path of cars. And the homeless, firefighters and kids are no match for a couple of tons of steel, glass and plastic.

That said, there wouldn’t be such a flap over panhandling if it was just firefighters and kids. The argument would be that firefighters are conscientious and would be careful and that the kids would be managed by adults who know what they’re doing.

So, don’t the homeless know how to be careful?

The answer has nothing to do with safety and a lot to do with the uncomfortable feeling of interacting with people who say they need help. We use the word “say,” because from talking with panhandlers we have learned that a few look at what they are doing as a preferred means of “work.” They are not homeless, as they would appear. We have talked to others who are desperate and embarrassed that they must resort to handouts.

Panhandling became an issue when Cranston retreated from its ban on the activity when challenged by the ACLU on grounds that it was an infringement on one’s freedom of speech. Overnight, major intersections where cars line up for traffic signals to change became the preferred locations to panhandle. Panhandlers arrived by bus, with some claiming what they considered “their” spot and telling others to leave.

If anything, their presence in such numbers has not awakened the need to help, but rather prompted a callused debate of how to deal with this problem from a legalistic instead of a humanitarian response.

The state will be watching the Cranston law that prohibits people from stepping into the travel lanes of heavily traveled roads for the purpose of retrieving or soliciting a donation. Will, as we suspect the intended purpose of the law is, this make it not worth the while to panhandle at these highly visible locations? Will the law be contested and maybe even shot down? Or will little change and police make a few arrests?

We don’t pretend to predict an outcome or to offer a preferred means of addressing panhandling. But for starters, let’s communicate. Do we know how many have made a conscientious decision to panhandle, why and what might offer them a more rewarding way of life?

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