On Panhandling- Portland needs an attitude adjustment

I’m so sick of all the blind hatred towards panhandlers in Portland and I can’t understand why so many (supposedly) intelligent people are unable to see the uselessness and unconstitutionality of the ordinance aimed at keeping them from begging on medians in town.

Thankfully,¬†U.S. District Judge George Singal is not one of those people. On February 12, Singal ruled that the ordinance is unconstitutional stating, “The court holds that on its face the city’s ordinance is a violation of the First Amendment.”

For me, the ruling was a wonderful affirmation of faith in humanity. On the other hand, for proponents of the ordinance it was an excuse to spew off more of their pent up, irrational vitriol towards an entire group of downtrodden people.

I’ve been an outspoken opponent of banning panhandlers from the medians ever since the ordinance was first considered almost two years ago and in that time I’ve heard every argument in the book about why the ban should be in place:

“It’s a safety issue, someone’s going to get hit by a car.”– To date there have been zero accidents caused by a panhandler on a Portland median. If we’re going to infringe on people’s rights to prevent a potential tragedy, perhaps we should focus more on the Second Amendment than the First.

“They just want the money for drugs and alcohol.”– Sure, some of them take the money that they earn panhandling and spend it on things like cigarettes, weed, booze, and hard drugs, but many of them put it towards things like food, clothing, and toiletries. Regardless of that, I can’t understand why people care so much about what they’re using the money for, especially when absolutely no one is obligated to give them money. If it ticks you off that bad, just drive on by with your windows up and your collection of spare change intact.

“They’re just lazy people looking for handouts, they should get a real job.”– Many of the people who panhandle struggle with serious mental illness, many more suffer from debilitating physical ailments. Sure, there are some out there who are able bodied and of sound mind, but I imagine that if they’re willing to stand out in public, subjecting themselves to the elements and to hours of humiliation, they probably feel as if they have no other option. Even holding the most low level type of job requires some sort of structure in one’s life, so admonishing someone for not working without an understanding of that person’s circumstances isn’t just unfairly judgmental, it’s also extremely ignorant.

“Seeing them out there begging makes me uncomfortable.”– Sorry, but just because people’s naive, delicate view of the world might be altered by the realities of poverty doesn’t give us the right to force marginalized people into the shadows. Just like the people who opposed racial equality in the past and marriage equality in the present, the people who oppose class equality will one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.

“They’re aggressive and violent when they don’t get what they want.”– Now you’re talking about something different from panhandling. Harassment and assault are illegal for good reason, if somebody tries to harm you call the cops immediately no matter where you are. It shouldn’t take an ordinance to help you figure that one out. Keep in mind that instances of panhandlers causing harm to passersby are almost non-existent. I certainly don’t want to minimize any instance where someone has been assaulted, but it’s important to remember that occurrences like that are few and very far between. It’s also worth pointing out that physical assaults happen all the time in the Old Port, but no one’s ever proposed an ordinance to ban loitering on Fore Street or Wharf Street.

“If people want to give their money, they should give it to charitable organizations.”– What people of means spend their money on is no more my business than what panhandlers buy with theirs. I’ve never advocated for giving panhandlers money. I actually very rarely give them money myself, but I believe all the way down to my core in the right of people to stand in public and express themselves in any way they choose so long as they aren’t impeding on the freedoms of anyone else.

The attitude that a majority of us should have the right to tell a struggling minority how they should live their lives is elitist and arrogant. Unfortunately Judge Singal doesn’t have the power to ban people from being jerks for no good reason.

Fortunately, he does have the power to tell the city that they have overstepped their boundaries, and that the effort to sweep bigger structural problems under the rug by way of banning panhandlers from medians wasn’t just close minded, short sighted, and completely useless- it was also illegal.

Chalk one up for the little guys.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.