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News Blog

Panhandling Politicians--An Essay

by Eric S. Peterson
Posted // 2009-08-19 -

A recent meeting Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker held with homeless and poor advocates broached the sensitive subject of panhandling.

First off, Becker says ‘let it be written that this administration will administer education for the public on how to deal with panhandlers on the best way to help the homeless’—so it was written. (Not an actual quote)Then for specifics on the tricky business of the step after that regulating panhandlers behavior, Becker deferred to a bright eyed and clean cut adviser who outlined some of the no-no areas for panhandling.

For example, soliciting money from folks when they can’t walk away, like if you’re waiting in line for a movie or something. Or aggressive panhandling, those threatening situations where a beggar becomes a chooser, and chooses to aggravate you. Or those instances where panhandlers are suspected to not be homeless and/or poor at all, but are in fact secret millionaires laughing all the way to the bank in their sports cars, stopping off at the  bank to change nickels into bills, and lighting their cigars with them. Because of course we all remember some Dateline special about some guy who did this at one time or another back in the ‘90s, so therefore, it must be an epidemic.

The whole reason of course that these behaviors start drifting into a grey zone is that there are civil liberties issues at stake. Like free speech for one. Asking for money after all is speech and if a telemarketer can call you in your home and solicit your bucks why shouldn’t the smelly guy on the street petition you for your spare change?

And hells bells if it didn’t seem like this issue seemed to intersect so perfectly with another policy argument made against regulating money behavior. Many a frustrated elections expert has at one time asked why the hell don’t we publicly finance political campaigns? Even if it means a tax bump, at least then taxpayers--and only taxpayers--will be buying their candidates vote, as opposed to special interests buying candidates in exchange for some democracy subvertin’ favors?

And every time this argument is broached the monied interests wailed out that such regulation would violate the 1st Amendment, because after all, they say, money equals free speech.

And  I realize that this comparison jumps between different levels of government municipal to state, national etc… But still, how ironic it is that all across the country cities like SLC are moving towards what they feel is the logical way to deal with those people--those stinky, blood-shot eyed, schizophrenic, grocery cart pushin’ people. Let’s regulate them!

Oh wait, but by the same token do we think it’s a good idea to regulate those other panhandlers, our panhandling public servants? Those who stink of corruption, those special interests pimpin’, two-faced, baby kissing people? Hell no, we can’t curb their ability to have a 1st Amendment conversation with their donors, nor can we curtail that individual donors right to “say” that they “support” their candidate. Money talks and therefore is protected by the Bill of Rights…unless you are a homeless guy.

Sure, sure, I know aggressive panhandling is a nuisance. And yes, there is no equivocating that public education about how to best help the poor, homeless and indigent is better than coughing up a buck or a quarter to one guy on the corner. But all I’m saying is that once you set it in stone, by law or ordinance, definitions for allowable behavior, you will then give the coppers all the more cause to sweep away the undesirables when the time comes. Not that it will be a matter of course, but it will happen. And it will happen then to the quiet, polite panhandlers, just as much as the belligerent ones.

Whereas our politicians? Well, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any cops to start rolling up to the capitol on their segue’s and hustling away the oil and tobacco lobbyists from passing any checks to those fine elected public-panhandlers of ours.

To sum up a long blog in one short sucker punch: If it’s free speech how come it won’t cost lobbyists or legislators a thing, but it could cost a homeless guy a night in the pen,  a fine, or at least some harassment?

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