Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

"Homeless man preparing his sign." Image by Roxanne D.

Homeless man preparing his sign.
Image by Roxanne D. Licensed CC-BY.

Like clockwork, it happens every few years in the city of Seattle. A crime’s committed downtown or statistics related to crime being on the upswing are bandied about, and someone suggests new laws against panhandling–soliciting, or begging, for money.

Last week, Seattle hotel manager David Watkins–who also serves as the head of the Seattle Hotel Association–was withdrawing money from an ATM machine at the Pike Place Market. Another man came along and grabbed the money from the cash dispenser. Watkins grabbed the man, who dropped some of the money, before he ran off.

Watkins immediately announced that he was pushing for a strict no-panhandling zone from the waterfront to the convention center. How that would prevent someone being robbed–which, of course, is already illegal in Seattle–remains unclear. And if that area, around the market and heading East on Pike, became an area where non-panhandling was enforced, wouldn’t that just move them to other parts of the city? (Not that panhandlers couldn’t be found throughout the downtown area already.)

Along with crime, there’s another issue in play: will the existence of panhandlers, street people and drug sellers in the downtown area, eventually hurt the city? Hoteliers like Watkins claim that some guests say they won’t come back to Seattle because of the negative impression they’re getting of the city.

The scenario’s reminiscent of 2010, when City Council member Tim Burgess sponsored an amendment that would create stronger panhandling laws to ones that were already in place. The bill attempted to regulate against “intimidating words and gestures”–something open to interpretation–and blocking someone’s walking path. One part of Burgess’ amendment included a $50 fine against “aggressive panhandling,” which raises the question why would someone be out begging for money if they could afford a $50 fine. Tim Harris, Director of Real Change, the organization that advocates for homeless and low-income citizens called Burgess’ amendment, “treating cancer patients with leeches.”

The Council passed the proposal, 5-4, but Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed the bill. McGinn’s veto was pragmatic; the law wouldn’t withstand legal challenges, possibly costing the city money in legal fees. The Human Rights Commission voted against the bill, 8-0. McGinn lobbied his closest ally on the Council, Mike O’Brien, to vote against the bill so that the Council wouldn’t have enough votes to override the veto. It was probably around this time that downtown business owners decided they needed to push for a new mayor who would represent their interests (McGinn also opposed business leaders beloved downtown tunnel project, now simply known as Big Bertha).

However, McGinn’s successor, Mayor Ed Murray isn’t lining up behind Watkins’ proposal. Murray says he’s not interested in creating a no-panhandling zone, but added he wants to see existing laws enforced. Seattle was one of the first cities to pass an ordinance against aggressive panhandling back in 1987. There are also ordinances against public urination, sitting on the sidewalk and carrying open containers of alcohol which tend to be used against the homeless population. Open container laws aren’t usually enforced at tailgating parties during Seahawk or University of Washington football games.

Most panhandling laws are ambiguous and “feel-good” legislation; not unlike Congressmen’s Dave Reichert recent statements about trying to stop welfare recipients from buying legal marijuana–pot can’t be purchased with food stamps anyway. We look for quick fixes in our society. It’s easier–or it seems easier, rather–to cast the homeless aside as opposed to trying to solve the issue of homelessness. After the Depression and World War II, you didn’t see a homeless person in the US of A for about 30 years. But in came Reaganomics, out went the New Deal, jobs were outsourced, mental hospitals closed, and the safety net no longer existed.

Having worked for the Real Change newspaper in various capacities, I have mixed feelings about panhandling. People have a right to ask other people for money, although there is such a thing as invading someone’s personal space. I’ve never panhandled, so it’s hard to empathize with people who do it regularly. Along with writing and editing at Real Change, I also briefly sold the paper on the street. While you tried not to feel superior to panhandlers, I always felt I was providing a product and performing a service by selling the paper.

I’ve known a few street people in my time in Seattle. We’ve talked about how there’s no aggressive panhandling in Seattle. Not really. The last time I was in New York City, back in the mid-90’s, a panhandler followed me from Grand Central Station to my hotel four blocks away, begging for money; something you wouldn’t see in Seattle.

We also joked about how a New Yorker is much more likely to tell a panhandler to “go fuck off” (which is probably his right) and then go merrily on his way. Seattleites, on the other hand, will smile politely at panhandlers, but later bitch about it, and vow to never return to the area where they were confronted.

For now, it looks like the tug-of-war between downtown businesses and homeless advocates will continue. It often makes me a think of a famous headline once written by my former boss Tim Harris, “Hide The Homeless, The Yuppies Are Coming.”