Making lives better makes for a safer downtown
Emotions make panhandling difficult to address.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau is after the city to make downtown feel safer.
I'm sure most folks would agree that safer is better; I know I do. But when I read about the letter the bureau sent to officials, I had an adverse gut reaction.
The bureau told city and county officials that visitors are increasingly complaining about what they see when they explore the city. They quoted a guy who lives in Chicago, of all places, who wrote in an email, "The aggressive panhandling and the sheer number of homeless are frightening."
I felt a little defensive.
Turns out the guy who wrote the email is a Seattle native who moved to Chicago, or maybe one of its suburbs.
It took a minute to let go of the stereotypes that brought forth and return to the gist of the message, that some people don't feel safe downtown. The bureau mentioned open drug dealing and aggressive panhandling. I don't like either of those activities.
I read the bureau's suggested remedies and found them reasonable. Enforce existing ordinances, increase bike and foot patrols in problem areas, and improve social and health services.
Something was nagging at me though, and I think it's the why — convenience and aesthetics, safety. Sure, but maybe that focus affects how we go about changing the scene on the streets, and maybe it even keeps efforts from being as successful as they could be. That is, maybe there is a difference between addressing issues for the sake of comfort and commerce and doing it to improve the lives of the folks who are making so many other people uneasy.
Seattle is just one of many cities in which street civility, especially aggressive panhandling, is an issue at the moment. Cities have been wrestling with the issue since there were cities, but it seems worse in many places now. A busted economy has increased the number of people who are without jobs, and no doubt it has increased the number of panhandlers. There's extra pressure to do something.
When a panhandler gets money there are two people involved in the transaction, the giver and the receiver.
If we want to stop panhandling or severely curtail it, the most direct way would be to remove one side of the exchange.
We're not going to lock up all panhandlers.
Several cities have tried changing the contributor side, pleading with the public not to give, putting up signs against the practice, providing vouchers for services that people can give out instead of cash.
Denver claims some success with parking meters. A few years ago the city spread converted meters around town in places where panhandlers congregated. The meters were altered to take donations, so that a person who felt a pang of guilt for a nearby panhandler, could drop change in a meter and know it would go to a local charity guaranteed to make a positive difference.
I read a lot about how cities have addressed the issue, including a few studies that tried to figure out who is begging, who is giving and what works best to change the dynamic.
There is some indication that the people who give are thinking as much about themselves as the people who just want panhandlers gone. Not surprising, is it?
People give because it makes them feel good, or sometimes because it lets them not feel so bad.
You know that in some parts of Asia, Buddhist monks and nuns beg in order to give donors a chance to improve their spiritual standing. It's a blessing to give.
The whole business is more emotional than anything else.
People often simplify it to: Panhandlers are good or bad. People who give or don't give are either good or bad.
The people panhandling are as diverse as any other group, though there are some frequent traits. They aren't wealthy. Some have substance-abuse issues, some have mental-health problems. Some, but not all, are homeless.
In one notable survey, most said they'd stop panhandling if they could get a job. But a good percentage said they didn't think they'd be able to hold down a job because of their mental or physical conditions.
There are some scam artists out there, too. And some aggressive people, but most don't act that way unless they feel insulted.
After hearing various arguments, I decided some time ago that giving to effective social-service organizations does more good than giving to individuals. Sometimes I behave illogically and give anyway.
But for the person panhandling, strategic compassion may be better in the long run than disdain or sympathy from you or me. Any response should be more about the person on the street than the observer — helping as many of them as possible off the streets, the ultimate fix for us all.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jerrylarge.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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