Slimantics: Panhandling lawsuit offers opportunity to examine how we view less fortunate

September 4, 2018 11:12:43 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


It was a couple of years ago. I was sitting a Columbus church listening to residents who had gathered their for a community meeting that was part of the city's commissioned study of its police department. 


In addition to filling out a questionnaire, citizens were invited to ask question or make suggestions. 


One middle-aged woman rose and asked what the police were doing about the panhandlers who had been in the Kroger parking lot. She said she and her daughter had noticed the same people at the location for several days. She didn't say that the panhandlers had threatened or harmed her or her daughter. She just didn't like them being there and she wanted to police department to "do something about it." 


She said all that standing in the middle of a church sanctuary. 


That's one of the reasons I don't go to church any more. 


I was reminded of that moment Thursday ago after hearing that the ACLU is demanding that 16 Mississippi cities, including Starkville, repeal their bans on panhandling. 


That comes as no surprise. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, that such bans were violations of free speech and, therefore, unconstitutional. 


It will be interesting to see how cities in Mississippi respond, particularly Starkville, which has its own history of defying first amendment protections, at least temporarily. Last March, the board of aldermen voted to deny a parade permit to an LGBT group, relenting only in the face of a lawsuit. Even then, it took an abstention by one alderman for the city to change its mind and allow the permit. 


The subject is an interesting topic. 


Let's face it, nobody enjoys being encountered by people asking for money. It's disturbing, and maybe a little frightening to some folks, one of those unpleasant things we would prefer not to encounter. Some folks, we suspect, are running scams, and not really poor at all. 


It would be wonderful if we were not exposed to the unpleasant realities of the world around us. 


Out of sight may indeed be out of mind. 


But that's the problem, isn't it? 


Problems don't go away just because we refuse to see them. In fact, they are more likely to get worse. 


Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruling involved a case right next door to where I lived and worked in the 2000s. Gilbert, Arizona, borders Mesa and I once wrote about a panhandler I encountered just off a Mesa freeway. He was 74 years old, leaning on a walker and soliciting change from motorists at they exited the freeway. 


It turns out the man had been living, unsuccessfully on social security. He told me he had been supplementing his income by delivering pizzas, but when his truck broke down, he turned to panhandling as a last resort. He hated asking for money, he said, but he couldn't think of anything else to do. 


A couple of days after the column appeared in the paper, a man showed up in my newsroom wanting to talk about the column. He said he has been doing his own investigation of the man. He told me the old fellow lived in a nice home and that he had a daughter who "made good money." The guy was a fraud, he said, folding his arms in smug satisfaction. 


"I think you should write that part of the story," he sneered. 


"I think you should mind your own business," I told him. 


As he walked out of the office in a huff, I wondered then - and still wonder now - what is wrong with people? 


Why are we so eager to judge, so suspicious of our fellow man - especially if they are poor and dirty and ragged? Why are we so determined that terms and conditions apply to even the simplest act of charity? 


There are beggars in our midst. 


What will do about it? Better, what SHOULD we do? 


We can give or not give. That's our choice. 


We can even stand up in a church and demand that police take them away. 


But we can no longer write laws to make them go away. 


It will be interesting to note how the Starkville Board of Aldermen respond to this legal challenge. 


What would Jesus do? 


Never mind that. 


It's what the aldermen will do that interests me. 


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]