Hiding Homelessness

A few weeks ago, I found myself reading another article about how the city of Boston is once again addressing the so-called problem of aggressive panhandling. The new ordinance that has been in effect since March prohibits all solicitation at bus stops or bus shelters, parking garages, parking lots, sidewalk cafés and crosswalks. It also prohibits harassing people when they’re standing in line in front of a place of business and bans anyone soliciting within 10 feet of an ATM.

The reason I say so-called problem is the way the term “aggressive panhandling” is defined by the city ordinance as “any solicitation that causes someone to fear for their person or property through the use of intimidation or physical contact.” Now, that definition can be interpreted several ways. In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, it already has. I’ve heard of panhandlers being asked to move by law enforcement simply because people do not like the way they look, and nothing more than that.

This brings up another point. Anyone can feel intimidated by a homeless person, and most are, mainly because of the stereotypes that are bandied about all too loosely. You would not believe the questions I get when I speak: “Are homeless people dangerous?” and so on. People also tend to think that aggressive panhandling means that there are too many panhandlers within a 3- or 4-block radius. I’ve heard or read stories about so-called good citizens walking around and taking pictures of panhandlers within a couple of blocks, and then running to the police and saying, “See? See?” Even SPARE CHANGE NEWS vendors have been victims of this.

What seems far more interesting to me is the equally aggressive ways these laws are enforced. Not only in Boston, but all over the country, there seems to be a constant push to sweep these folks out of the way and drive them away from places such as downtown areas and public parks. “We can’t have people see this clutter on our streets,” seems to be the attitude of the day. God forbid that tourists who come to this country see “poor people mingling on our pristine streets.”

Aggressive panhandling ordinances are designed to hide those who are less fortunate. What else could it be? Yes, there are those who aggressively panhandle, but they’re not much different than the rest of us, who can be even more aggressive when we’re driving, standing in line or getting on and off a train. Do I condone aggressive panhandling? Of course not. But let us not use it to cover up the real issue, which is poverty. Period.

The other thing I’ve noticed quite a bit lately is how, as Americans, we get caught up in causes, especially when it comes to tragedies such as the horrific tornadoes that recently struck Oklahoma, or the bombings in Boston. Whenever things like this happen, we gather ourselves up to help, we set up funds, sell T-shirts and throw benefit concerts, all in a heroic effort to raise money for the victims and to raise awareness. We donate to causes like cancer, diabetes, heart disease or sick children. These are all noble causes, but there are times when I wonder why we will not do the same for those living in homelessness and poverty. Where is their benefit concert? Is not having one another way of hiding these social ills?

We need to stop hiding homelessness and poverty—and we need to stop hiding them from ourselves.

James Shearer is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which operates SPARE CHANGE NEWS.

James Shearer

A few weeks ago, I found myself reading another article about how the city of Boston is once again addressing the so-called problem of aggressive panhandling. The new ordinance that has been in effect since March prohibits all solicitation at bus stops or bus shelters, parking garages, parking lots, sidewalk cafés and crosswalks. It also prohibits harassing people when they’re standing in line in front of a place of business and bans anyone soliciting within 10 feet of an ATM.

The reason I say so-called problem is the way the term “aggressive panhandling” is defined by the city ordinance as “any solicitation that causes someone to fear for their person or property through the use of intimidation or physical contact.” Now, that definition can be interpreted several ways. In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, it already has. I’ve heard of panhandlers being asked to move by law enforcement simply because people do not like the way they look, and nothing more than that.

This brings up another point. Anyone can feel intimidated by a homeless person, and most are, mainly because of the stereotypes that are bandied about all too loosely. You would not believe the questions I get when I speak: “Are homeless people dangerous?” and so on. People also tend to think that aggressive panhandling means that there are too many panhandlers within a 3- or 4-block radius. I’ve heard or read stories about so-called good citizens walking around and taking pictures of panhandlers within a couple of blocks, and then running to the police and saying, “See? See?” Even SPARE CHANGE NEWS vendors have been victims of this.

What seems far more interesting to me is the equally aggressive ways these laws are enforced. Not only in Boston, but all over the country, there seems to be a constant push to sweep these folks out of the way and drive them away from places such as downtown areas and public parks. “We can’t have people see this clutter on our streets,” seems to be the attitude of the day. God forbid that tourists who come to this country see “poor people mingling on our pristine streets.”

Aggressive panhandling ordinances are designed to hide those who are less fortunate. What else could it be? Yes, there are those who aggressively panhandle, but they’re not much different than the rest of us, who can be even more aggressive when we’re driving, standing in line or getting on and off a train. Do I condone aggressive panhandling? Of course not. But let us not use it to cover up the real issue, which is poverty. Period.

The other thing I’ve noticed quite a bit lately is how, as Americans, we get caught up in causes, especially when it comes to tragedies such as the horrific tornadoes that recently struck Oklahoma, or the bombings in Boston. Whenever things like this happen, we gather ourselves up to help, we set up funds, sell T-shirts and throw benefit concerts, all in a heroic effort to raise money for the victims and to raise awareness. We donate to causes like cancer, diabetes, heart disease or sick children. These are all noble causes, but there are times when I wonder why we will not do the same for those living in homelessness and poverty. Where is their benefit concert? Is not having one another way of hiding these social ills?

We need to stop hiding homelessness and poverty—and we need to stop hiding them from ourselves.

–James Shearer

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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