Someone once joked to me that walking through downtown Lowell was like visiting a casting call for Les Miserables. That was twenty years ago. I’m not sure how much has changed. It’s really in the nature of cities to attract all kinds of people, from the very well off to the very needy. Because of population density, cities have attracted beggars since there were cities. I suspect the presence of beggars has always made people uncomfortable. That’s probably a good thing. We should be reminded that life is a roulette wheel that allows bad things to happen to good people and that poverty is not a lifestyle choice.
I understand why the city council passed the ordinance that bans panhandling in downtown Lowell which is not to say that I agree with it. It strikes me as a quest for a simple solution to a complex problem, like longing for a magic pill to combat obesity rather than following the tougher approach of eating less and exercising more. Why do people beg for money in the first place? Sure, there are ample opportunities for those in need to get food and other types of assistance. To leave it at that ignores the freedom that comes with having a little money in your pocket. If you don’t have a job and you don’t receive some kind of formal assistance like unemployment or social security disability that leaves you with some cash, why not try to raise a few bucks each day by asking strangers for some spare change?
I do suspect, however, that much of that spare change ends up in the cash register of the local liquor store or the pocket of the neighborhood heroin dealer. That’s the reason I don’t usually give money to people who ask. It’s not that I lack compassion; it’s that I believe the odds are that giving money will simply perpetuate a destructive addiction. Yet even with that rationale, I still feel uncomfortable, maybe guilty, when I say “no” (except in the case of the guy who started swearing at me after I said no, my recent encounter with one of the city’s “aggressive” panhandlers). It’s that feeling of guilt, of being made to feel uncomfortable that most motivates complaints about panhandlers and ordinances like the one the city just enacted.
Will this ordinance bring an end to panhandling downtown? I doubt it, unless you deploy the entire police force on Merrimack and Market Streets. Even if it does suppress begging in downtown, it might just displace it to other parts of the city. It could also cause those desperate for money to escalate their behavior to larceny, break-ins and even robbery. In any case, it won’t do anything to address the underlying pathologies that gave rise to begging in the first place.
One thing I believe would help is a type of community code of conduct for the beggars but also for those being solicited. For the person being asked for money, how should you respond? (i.e., a simple “no” rather than “get a job”). How should you behave? For the person asking, what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior. Maybe the city’s Hunger and Homeless Commission could work with some experts in law enforcement, sociology, mental health, substance abuse and a variety of other fields to compose such a code of conduct. It wouldn’t have the weight of law but at least it would give everyone on both sides of the equation an understanding of what was and was not acceptable behavior.
Longer term, support for substance abuse treatment, job training, better access to mental health facilities and all the other remedial measures to address the causes of hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and all the other things that leave people in poverty and distress have to be pursued. It’s a long hard slog. Seeking quick fixes only delays or detracts from getting started with the things that will make a difference.