MCDILL: Thoughts on panhandling

June 6, 2013

Business

Jackson has a huge problem.

Bigger than potholes. Smaller than crime. But still huge.

This is the part where the economic developer says that perception is the problem.

Not exactly, but it ties in with perception.

The problem is panhandling.

Sure, it’s not a huge thing in the grand scheme of life. Just a person probably having a harder day than you and wanting some Christian charity. Just a small handout.

I get it.

Go ahead, follow your conscience. I’ve followed mine both in giving and not giving at times.

I’ve volunteered in the soup kitchens and seen the faces. I’ve even crawled up under bridges at midnight to give sandwiches to an outstretched hand. Poverty, mental illness, and unemployment, drive millions to the street corner every year in America including war veterans, women and even children.

Not all panhandlers are homeless. Some are professionals that do pretty well living off what others are willing to give.

Smith Park panhandler Timothy was recently photographed in a recent travel blog.

Smith Park panhandler Timothy was recently photographed for an Internet travel blog.

For more than a year, I helped an unemployed HIV patient named Timothy that hung out in Smith Park in front of my office. Giving rides, buying lunch. Some money for bus fare or a photo ID so he could find a job. I probably just thought I could make a difference.

Only there’s a dark side to helping sometimes.

That dark side is money.

Nine times out of 10 when I’m “hit up” for a handout, all they want is money. I’ve offered to buy lunch and been turned down so many times it’s pathetic.

It wasn’t long before Timothy wouldn’t leave me alone about money. He always wanted money and would wait outside my office till I got off work. One night I tried to take some visiting friends downtown to eat and Timothy met us out front. That was the last time I gave him money. The “friendship” we had was over. The last time I saw him he yelled at me from across the street. He never remembered my name.

Last week, the New York Times travel page ran a glowing column about Jackson’s beautiful Fondren community. I was accosted the very next day near the corner of Duling and State streets by another down-on-his-luck fellow who dog cussed me after I ignored his salutation.

Dog cussed me in broad daylight in the middle of a busy Fondren lunch hour. This is what the lawyers call “aggressive panhandling.”

Seriously?

Look Jackson, I’m all for this supposed renaissance that I keep hearing about. How your downtown and your funky Fondren is really leading the way.

It’s one thing to have someone quietly holding a cardboard sign or cup on the corner.

But these haughty, bleary-eyed, guttersnipe versions aren’t helping Jackson and a few of these hard characters are downright menacing to its citizenry and commerce.

Here’s a carrot and stick solution for Jackson’s panhandling pandemic.

If you are so led, the best thing you can do individually for a panhandler is buy them lunch. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do. That’s definitely what they did during the Great Depression. Sure I can spare a dime, but how far is that really gonna take someone?

If you own a business offer to sell vouchers to customers so they can pass them along to anyone they meet in need like one group in Berkeley, Calif. did. One group at Yale University offered vouchers that could be redeemed for food, toothbrushes and bus fare.

If you must give money to “solve” the homeless/vagrant/panhandling problem then find a local charity that you can support each month. Then you could refer anyone you meet to that charity and the work they do.

That’s the carrot.

JUST SAY NO: Businesses in the Five Points district in Birmingham, Ala. post signs that discourage giving to panhandlers. (ABC 33/40)

Businesses in the Five Points district in Birmingham, Ala. post signs that discourage giving to panhandlers. (ABC 33/40)

The stick is if you own a business and you have bums breaking the law by loitering and harassing your customers outside, call the police. At least someone with some authority can tell them to move along and find another corner to haunt.

Some cities issue citations and even lob community service and fines at certain offenders. There’s very little long-term solution to this approach but at least it will show the aggressive panhandlers that your city has a zero tolerance enforcement against their behavior.

Finally, talk to your employees, customers and neighboring businesses and just have some self-awareness about the issue and its impact on your block. There’s a point where charity can be exploited and in those situations everyone loses especially the panhandler.

There’s plenty of room in this issue for both compassion and common sense. Panhandlers aren’t animals. They have rights. They have pride.

So do we.

Picture this. The young artist from the suburbs that wants to move to Fondren only she gets spooked on a Saturday night stroll and chooses Clinton instead.

Or the transplanted lawyer that doesn’t return the commercial realtor’s phone call about that new office space next to Smith Park. You can find him in Flowood.

Will panhandlers ever vanish completely from Jackson? I doubt it. Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.”

So of course, I can let this ride and will be back downtown and in Fondren in no time.

But what about everyone else?

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to George Kashouh for sharing the picture of Timothy. You can see his Flickr photo stream here.

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About Stephen McDill

Stephen McDill joined the Mississippi Business Journal in 2008 after working in radio and television. He is a graduate of Belhaven University and has won awards for his writing and photojournalism from the Associated Press and Mississippi Press Association.

View all posts by Stephen McDill

3 Responses to “MCDILL: Thoughts on panhandling”

  1. Your Brother Says:

    The new mayor may be the biggest business problem for Jackson.

  2. Easy Mark Says:

    I’m also going to cut Timothy off. I have to walk through or around Smith Park to get to work and Timothy knows if he can come up with a heart wrenching enough of a story, that I’m good for $20. I gave him $40 one night because he had lost his HIV medications, another time, he had been shot in the leg by a kid with a BB gun. Something traumatic is always happening in his life. Unfortunately, he does remember my name and can spot me from a distance. He also knows where I work. Thank you for writing this article. This confirms to me that he’s a professional panhandler. He’s not unemployed, he’s self employed and I’m his client, except the only service I receive is being stalked. I have to say he’s pretty good at panhandling. He knows how to make an individual want to help him. I was low on money one day so I offered to buy him lunch at Chick-Filet on my credit card and he turned it down asking for what every cash I might have left saying he prefers Church’s Chicken. I don’t know why I didn’t cut him off then.

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