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.

8 Responses to Panhandling

  1. Renee Aste says:

    What happens when all the efforts on substance abuse treatment, housing, job training, and other services have been pursued and in less then a year we are back at square one.

    It is frustrating to see parents refuse inpatient treatment, or not able to stabilize their situation within a reasonable time frame. We actually have inpatient where young children still live with their mothers.

    Children can’t linger in foster care, even if it is kinship or over a year. We have to move to terminate parental rights to adoption. If relatives can not adopt, then an adoption search. The babies are easy, school age children harder to find homes. Teens are at times easier, because they can express their wants and needs.

  2. Nancy Greene says:

    The new panhandling ordinance will only displace panhandlers to a new location. It won’t solve the deeper problems of homelessness and hunger and their underlying causes of untreated physical and mental illness and possible drug and alcohol abuse. Expecting the poorest of the poor, people panhandling for money because they have absolutely none, to pay a $50 fine is a ridiculous notion. While aggressive behavior should never be rewarded, kindness begetting kindness during the holiday season, and all year round for that matter, should remain part of the ebb and flow of the Universe as well as standard operating procedure in downtown Lowell.

    In Buddhism “the beggar” actually has a very important role in society, which is to provide us with an opportunity to give freely with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Our perceptions or judgments of “the beggar” reveal more about ourselves and our own opportunities for spiritual growth than they do “the beggar” himself.

    I would ask the City Council to rethink its recent panhandler ordinance, as it demonstrates the worst of Lowell as a city. Aggression that threatens violence is called assault and would warrant immediate removal from the area and processing for observation. Over-assertiveness that causes discomfort or fear, but does not threaten violence should be addressed initially with strong police warnings regarding conduct. Non-compliance with verbal warnings could result in removal from the area on any number of charges currently on the books like disturbing the peace or resisting arrest, which would again remove the perpetrator from the street and provide a cooling off/observation period during which time the perpetrator could be assessed for dangerousness, treatable mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse.

    For the panhandler who is respectful and totally non-threatening in his approach, leave him/her alone. How people choose to respond or react to the respectful ask is on them, not the panhandler. We make assumptions about people all day every day. Why do we choose to assume the very worst about people who may just be down on their luck or who’ve fallen through the gaping holes in our social safety nets.

    We can and must do better than fining the poorest of our poor $50 for simply being visible and asking for help.

  3. Publius says:

    What is the problem with saying “Get a job”? By saying “get a job” you are shaming someone into action. One of the problems in society today, is that shame no longer exists. Some of these people need a reality check and this may be kick in the pants that they need.
    Expecting beggars to conform a “community code of conduct for beggars” is absurd. These beggars are begging partly because the refuse to conform to society’s expectations. Why should there be an expectation of behavior of the victim (the person being solicited). Their personal space and personal time are being invaded by the beggar.
    Coming up with some long, convoluted and ineffective solution with the involvement of a stupid, powerless government commission would accomplish nothing. Sometimes the simplest solution(as the city council did Tuesday night) is the most effective.
    BTW, the word “beggar” is so Dickensian, it must be politically incorrect. Maybe the term should be “financially challenged”.

  4. Nancy P says:

    While I don’t walk around in downtown Lowell (that’s for another post) the few times that I am on foot, I’ve never encountered panhandling in Lowell. We have seen panhandling in other cities, but it has never been a problem. I feel sorry for those asking for money, I don’t give money for the same reasons Dick describes – I feel it will end up going to the heroin dealer or liquor store . I was recently approached by a woman in the Tewksbury at the Market Basket/Kmart strip mall for bus fair and I gave it to her. She could have just not had the cash.
    This new law isn’t very enforceable if you think about it. How can you fine someone who has nothing and expect them to pay a fine?

  5. Dean says:

    A few a ago a friend brought two of his college friends to Lowell. He took them to some famous local establishments in Lowell. He told me later that his college buddies thought that they were in a (Federirio) ) Fellini film.

  6. Troix Bettencourt says:

    Thank you for your post, Dick. This is a complex issue. Lowell is the 4th largest city in the Commonwealth. As a city, we have city sized problems: gang violence, illegal drugs, break-ins, homelessness, panhandling, etc. For those reading this, please keep in mind that mental health and substance abuse go hand in hand. Homelessness and poverty also lead to an increase in substance use, as well. After all, it’s cold outside…wouldn’t you, too want to drink it away? I’m not condoning any of this, of course. However, I do wonder how this ordinance will be enforced. How is it someone can stand on a street corner with a sign that reads, “God Hates Fags” or outside an abortion clinic with images of mangled fetus, but not a cardboard sign that reads, “Spare Change”. Could this become a freedom of speech issue? Regardless, the role of the Hunger Homeless Commission is to advocate and make recommendations to the city. Now that it has passed we would like to offer our collective expertise to the city and to perhaps recommend training to our law enforcement around the complex issues of homelessness, mental health, trauma and substance use. And, to what services are available and what the appropriate organizations are that might be able to help. Dropping folks off at the shelter that has been operating at capacity is not helpful. Hospitals often struggle when these folks are admitted because legally they cannot discharge someone to the street. There are opportunities to work with the city around these issues. I just hope they are open to working with us. We can’t make them go away…neither will this ordinance.

  7. David Spears says:

    I think the issue of panhandling is a very difficult problem for civil leaders. I really feel for cities trying to address this issue. As an aspiring economist, I recently conducted a field experiment to satisfy my own curiosity on just how much money panhandlers can make. I went undercover and and spent 80 hours panhandling at an exit ramp. My average hourly wage was considerably north of minimum wage ($8.90 an hour). I also collected interesting data on the people who donated. I wrote about my experiences in a book called Exit Ramp: A Short Case Study of the Profitability of Panhandling. I think any city dealing with this problem needs to acknowledge that there are both those who panhandle because of an inability to get steady employment (mental health issues), and those who panhandle because it is possible to earn good money doing it. Figuring out how to help the one and discourage the other is no easy task.

  8. ED says:

    If you drive by enough of them you see they have cars ,cell phones nice clothes. Some of them can get jobs .maybe they need to be watched more and see where they buy there drugs and maybe that will help .police watch everything else why not them .just think you might find their drug dealers .I’m tired of hearing all the excuses some more needs to be done