Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Panhandling and the Public Square

As our community—and communities around the country—struggle with the impact of aggressive panhandling on the growth of their downtown cores, the knowledge that the panhandlers are getting training, and that for many, it is more a profession than a need, may cause some concern; beyond that of helping the truly needy.

A recent article examines that.

An excerpt.

"Barbara Bradley, an editor with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, moved into the River City’s reviving downtown about a year and a half ago, loving its “energy and enthusiasm.” But a horde of invading panhandlers has cooled her enjoyment of city life. Earlier this year, she recalled in a recent column, as she showed some visitors around the neighborhood, “a big panhandler blocked the entrance to our parking area and demanded his toll.” Now a nervous Bradley avoids certain downtown areas, locks her car when fueling up at local gas stations, and parks strategically, so that she can see beggars coming before getting out of her car. “When I hear someone call out ‘ma’am, ma’am’ anywhere in downtown or midtown, I run.”

"She’s not alone. Cities have overcome myriad obstacles in revitalizing their downtowns, from lousy transportation systems to tough competition from suburban shopping malls. But nearly 15 years after New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police chief, William Bratton, vanquished Gotham’s notorious squeegee men and brought aggressive panhandling under control, other cities are facing a new wave of “spangers” (that is, spare-change artists) who threaten their newfound prosperity by harassing residents, tourists, and businesses. Unlike their predecessors in the seventies and eighties, many of these new beggars aren’t helpless victims or even homeless. Rather, they belong to a diverse and swelling community of street people who have made panhandling their calling.

"Like most countries, America has always had its share of itinerant travelers, vagabonds, and hoboes. But panhandling became a more pervasive and disturbing fact of urban life in the 1970s—a by-product of the explosion in homelessness that resulted from rising drug use and the closing of state-run mental institutions, which released scores of helpless psychiatric patients back into society. Though studies showed that only a small percentage of homeless people panhandled—mostly alcoholics and drug addicts seeking their next fix—the sheer numbers of street people still meant lots of beggars. By the crack epidemic’s late-eighties peak, New York City in particular was home to a massive panhandling presence. A 1988 survey by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority found that 80 percent of subway riders disliked the constant harassment. “I was raised never to pass a beggar by, but there are too many of them and I’m sick of it,” one Manhattanite told the New York Times. “I feel like this is becoming beggar city.”

"The problem soon turned from irritating to alarming in “beggar city,” as incidents of aggressive panhandling leading to violent crime began showing up regularly in the headlines. In 1988, an itinerant panhandler on Manhattan’s Upper West Side murdered his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter, whose dead body he then stuffed into a baby carriage and took out on his rounds, along with the girl’s still-living brother. A year later, an aggressive panhandler stabbed to death a 32-year-old computer engineer in a confrontation on West 114th Street in Manhattan. Shortly after, in the Bronx, an 18-year-old boy died from stab wounds inflicted by a panhandling immigrant who knew just four English words: “Give me a dollar!”

"The escalation—and other cities faced it, too—shouldn’t have been surprising. “If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby . . . it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if a mugging actually takes place,” wrote political scientist James Q. Wilson. One change in policing that had contributed to the growing disorder, observed Wilson, was curtailing foot patrols in favor of squad cars. In the past, an officer on the beat would discourage panhandlers; now he just drove on by.

"New York, fed up with the disorder, began to crack down on panhandling in the early nineties. The effort started in the subways, spearheaded by the Bratton-led Metropolitan Transit Authority police, who combined policing with outreach efforts for homeless beggars willing to come in off the streets. The cleanup continued when Bratton became Giuliani’s first police commissioner in 1994 and took on the squeegee men—insistent panhandlers who intimidated Manhattan drivers by washing their car windows and then demanding payment. After a study by criminologist George Kelling found that three-quarters of the squeegee men weren’t homeless and that half had felony records, cops began arresting them for blocking traffic. That put an end to the shakedowns in a matter of weeks."

Continue reading the article.