Panhandling the public

This past winter, it seemed that nearly everyone in Asheville — from Sadie Funderburk in West Asheville to Police Chief Will Annarino to City Council member Joe Dunn — was suddenly discovering a plethora of panhandlers. Chief Annarino maintained that “these people” — that is, panhandlers — were responsible for backing up traffic and stopping cars “at our busiest intersections.” His concern, he said, centered on public safety. “We don’t want to come to you after someone gets hurt,” he lectured City Council, “asking you to adopt” an ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of “money, employment, business or a ride from … motorists within the city limits.”

Council member Dunn flashed stacks of Polaroid(TM) pictures depicting trash and makeshift campsites near Tunnel Road, allegedly the work of roadside solicitors. In our city leaders’ outrage and indignation over panhandlers, however, they have succumbed to the temptation of assuming the mantle of saintliness, in whose name they have themselves panhandled the public.

The whole deal smacks of cheap moral swagger. The recently elected City Council wasted little time in hastening to eliminate panhandling (admittedly a nuisance and an eyesore for the community) while retreating and procrastinating on much tougher decisions about zoning, city services, development, annexation and the budget — issues that affect the very soul of Asheville and environs.

Pearl Buck, who wrote so compassionately of the “great river” of people who make up China, always maintained that the test of a society lies in how it treats and cares for its most helpless members, not in how the rich and the middle class fare. Whether the people on Tunnel Road or Wood Avenue are beautiful and friendly, unattractive and annoying, or even trashy and disruptive, they are, ultimately, human beings just like us. They, too, want such basics as food to eat, a measure of happiness in their lives, and the right to overcome their suffering. Their very presence, in fact, uneasily reminds us of how close most of us live to the edge of poverty despite our seeming security and affluence. We have literally grown afraid to be poor, and so we despise anyone who chooses to remind us of that hateful condition — especially after we’ve just seen a good escapist movie or dropped a few bucks at the local mall. In so many ways, it seems, panhandling simply projects the wrong image for Asheville.

To blame those who live on the margins of society for panhandling, or the poor for subsisting on welfare, shows little justice or merit unless we’re also willing to judge the rich by how productive or useful they are. Indeed, taken person by person, we may discover more loafing and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.

The same can be said about public safety, another specious issue in this case. How many people in Asheville have been injured while panhandling? How many people have been hurt by panhandlers? More than the number of speeding or drunken drivers? Or the number of muggings and fights throughout the city? Or are we really dealing merely with people’s indignation and embarrassment here?

Do we pass laws in anticipation of a public-safety concern or because there really is one? Passing yet another petty ordinance or invoking police powers against the dreaded menace of panhandlers surely signals a kind of moral bankruptcy in terms of concern for these people’s welfare, as well as a general lack of compassion for all living beings.

The small charities dispensed to panhandlers sometimes seem like such a cheap trick, a paltry substitute for the comfort and plenty that so many enjoy. It’s much like the government-surplus cheese that’s distributed to the poor, a meager allowance indeed. But we want to manage and judge even these measly handouts, saying, “They’ll only spend it on cheap wine,” or Why don’t you work for a living?” or branding the recipients as “welfare cheats.” Yet we never ask ourselves such disdainful and contemptuous questions. Instead of examining our own motives and quality of life, relative to theirs — a troubling exercise in assessing such complex issues as panhandling — we pass laws that conveniently remove the problem from our moral radar screens altogether.

Another writer, Bertolt Brecht, accurately described this too-familiar process years ago. When you see someone on a street corner with only a few rags for clothes or a stump for an arm, you’ll probably give him a dollar. The second time, you give him 50 cents. The third time, you’ll cold-bloodedly call the police. We, it seems, have seen the Tunnel Road panhandlers too many times, and now we look to the authorities to do something to get us off the hook. That’s the easy way out.

Asheville and the surrounding region have benefited greatly from the steadfast and dedicated service of Chief Annarino and also from the insight and flexibility of the current City Council. Overall, they have served well and honestly. But any realistic public image of Asheville must be a heady medley allowing ample room for nonconformity and dissimilarity.

If we seek to remove the poor and disadvantaged, let us do it not through political but through social actions. That would surely be a more appropriate public face for this city and for all the caring, compassionate people who live here.

[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]

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