June 13, 2013

Panhandling solutions imperfect

- I gave a panhandler a buck Tuesday morning.

I'm not sure why -- I readily admit I ignore Portland's ever-growing legion of median-strip dwellers far more often than I lower the driver's window and pass them a few coins or a dollar bill.

But it was raining hard and I figured if this hapless soul was willing to stand there and get soaked at the corner of Marginal Way and Franklin Street, he deserved some small reward for his effort.

"I'm a painter and I haven't been able to find any work," he said when I asked what had brought him to this point.

Then I asked if he knew the City Council's Public Safety Health and Human Services Committee would meet that very evening to debate whether median strips are appropriate places to ask other people for money.

"You mean they're not going to let us be here anymore?" he asked, peering through the drops falling from his clear-plastic poncho.

"Maybe not," I replied.

The light turned green. He shrugged and prepared to greet the next round of oncoming traffic. I went on with my day, not sure if my dollar would help him, hurt him or do something in between.

The truth is, I'm all over the map when it comes to panhandling.

One minute, I nod in agreement with friends (mostly business types) who say the multitudes standing with their cardboard signs at every gateway to downtown Portland are a blight on the city's image and, with summer at our doorstep, a repellent to tourists in search of the way life should be.

The next, I agree with the public safety advocates who argue that it's only a matter of time before someone -- a panhandler, a motorist -- gets creamed in a spot never intended for this type of transaction.

Then along come these occasional moments when impulse strikes and I'm holding out a soggy dollar -- not because I truly believe it will solve anything, but because at this particular time in this particular place, it simply feels like the right thing to do.

Enter "Have a Heart, Give Smart," a soon-to-be-launched effort by Portland's downtown business community to nurture my inner do-gooder and, at the same time, send all those panhandlers packing. A win-win, you might say -- assuming you're not a panhandler.

On a separate but parallel track, we have a proposed ordinance (the second in as many years) that would make it illegal for any person to "stand, sit, stay, drive or park" on a "paved or planted area of public right-of-way, dividing a street or highway into lanes according to the direction of travel." Put more simply, that guy who gratefully accepted my buck Tuesday morning would be booted from the median but allowed on the nearby street corner.

Good ideas? Bad ideas?

Let's discuss.

"You hear the voices as well as I do. There are people in town who say, 'Sweep the bums off the street!' or 'Don't feed the animals!'" said Chris O'Neil of the Portland Community Chamber in an interview Tuesday. "But most people in Portland, including the chamber, don't talk that way or even think that way. We are undoubtedly a compassionate community."

No argument there. But O'Neil, the driving force behind the "Have a Heart" initiative, says it would make far more sense if that compassion were funneled through a single conduit to all of Portland's neediest, not just that man or woman on the corner whose sign may or may not be telling the real story.

"Have a Heart," still in its final planning stages, will work something like this: Those looking to upgrade their daily karma can simply drop their spare change (or bills) into one of many collection boxes in participating businesses around the city, or in brightly painted parking meters donated by the city and installed in locations (well away from the curb) with high pedestrian traffic.

The money will go directly to participating social service agencies to feed, clothe and shelter the poor, O'Neil said. Each donor might even get a small token or card to be passed on, in lieu of money, to the next panhandler who crosses their path. (Look for lots of little cards on high-traffic median strips.)

It is, acknowledged O'Neil, a "market-based approach" to the panhandling pandemic.

Meaning?

"You let the market determine whether or not (panhandling) is a viable activity," O'Neil said. "The theory is that if a panhandler can yield 10 bucks an hour at an intersection and we change the dynamic with a program like this, where he can only do two dollars an hour, the proliferation of panhandling is diminished."

O'Neil noted that Boise, Idaho, is but one of "dozens if not hundreds of communities" throughout the country where the program already has succeeded.

Maybe, maybe not: According to Adam Park, spokesman for the city of Boise, its "Have a Heart" program simply refers people to worthy charities; it doesn't collect donations. "And we still have panhandlers," Park told me.

Closer to home, some in the social services community are ambivalent at best about a business-based coalition inserting itself between those who need a dime and those who can spare it.

At the Preble Street Resource Center, Executive Director Mark Swann said the board has already voted not to affiliate with the "Have a Heart" campaign.

"We appreciate them thinking of us, but the board has looked at this initiative and declined to participate," Swann said, declining to elaborate.

(My guess: Preble Street's board of directors has concluded that, for all its lofty rhetoric, "Have a Heart" looks and sounds more like a street sweeper than a vehicle for social enhancement.)

Moving right along, we have the city's proposed ban on the use of medians by pedestrians. This seemingly common-sense measure drew many a speaker Tuesday evening before the public safety committee unanimously recommended its passage by the City Council.

Swann said Preble Street decided to neither support nor oppose the median-strip ban after receiving assurances from city officials that it has everything to do with public safety and nothing to do with panhandlers' well-established First Amendment right to ask for spare change.

Not so for the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Zach Heiden, its legal director, said in an interview Tuesday that his organization will sue if the city goes ahead with the median-strip ban.

Heiden's reasoning: The city must present a "real, substantial record" of a public-safety problem (where are the accident reports?) and attempts at less restrictive solutions (panhandling permits, anyone?) before it can simply declare a "traditional public forum" (including streets, sidewalks and, yes, medians) off limits for any and all purposes.

Then there's the simple reality that some median strips pose more danger than others.

Or, as Heiden so artfully put it, "not all median strips are created equal."

Not sure I agree with you there, counselor. But I'll give you a buck to say that in open court.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

Twitter: @BillNemitz NOTE TO READERS

BECAUSE OF TECHNICAL problems, this story did not run in its entirety Wednesday. We are reprinting it here today.

 

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