Saturday, January 5, 2013

Suggestions to City Council on "Panhandling" ordinance

Comment on "Pie and Coffee"    to a request by Mike Benedetti for suggestions to the City Council on "Panhandling".

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Here's my (long) response to your request, posted also to PieAndCoffee:

My detailed comments and recommendations to City Council on the so-called Panhandling Resolutions:
First, "Panhandler" is a pejorative term. It implies scammer, professional beggar. I have not heard one “panhandler” use that term. Many refer to themselves as “signers”. I will use “sign-holder” because “signer” is already claimed by users of sign language.
Second: even the ones who take professional pride in their conduct, their relationships with motorists and the police, the way they help regulate who gets which corner when, are quick to say how much they hate having to do this. Not a formal denial. They’re speaking from their hearts. A few out of 35 I’ve talked to showed clear signs of addiction, incoherence, alcohol breath. One was known to behave aggressively and I saw an instance of that. (His spot is near Evo’s Restauran, btw.  I'm just saying.) The rest of the sign-holders were clear and lucid about why they were doing this, their stories, their feelings and experiences, and took pride in talking about the dignified way they conducted themselves. Pretty much, regular folk in a bad situation.  
As our fearless Social Services outreach worker pointed out, many have a diagnosis of one sort or another.  No surprise there. Providing a medical-sounding diagnosis for people's problems is one of the main products of our social service industry!  This then is used to excuse the failures of the system and dismiss the victims as beyond normal help.
Third: The sign-holders mostly don’t get much for their efforts. There are stories of sign-holders who are making a lot of money, but their story is that they have to stand and ask for hours to get the $30 or $40 they need. (One reason they give for not coming even to a meeting with food is they can’t afford to take the time away from sign-holding.)  One of the most experienced at a very good corner claims being able to average $8-10 an hour sometimes – but that’s rare. Watch them a while and see how often they collect something – usually a dollar or change. Result supports their claims of it being a hard way to get a meager living.
Fourth: If you ask sign-holders about their circumstances, ask them how much they get a month! Many are collecting SSI or SSDI, and not receiving enough to pay the rent. Many have been waiting, some for over a year, to get on SSI or SSDI. Others are unable to find work due to arrest records, age or child-care duties.
Fifth: The most common reason given for why they do this: it's the only way they can find to get enough money to pay rent, stay off the street out of the shelters and out of a tent.  So these aren't the very poorest of the poor - and sign-holding is how they are clinging to their very last finger-hold on that bottom rung of the ladder!
Sixth: Things are getting worse for the sign-holders since this campaign began.  When I first started talking with sign-holders many talked about their good relationships with the Worcester Police, how police would talk to them, even bring them sandwiches, caution them on not interfering with traffic, - some would make them move on, most not. And the few who would get out of line and harass motorists, the police would come pick them up. Now the stories of police harassment have increased a lot. Donations are down, abusive comments, threats and thrown objects from passing motorists are way up.  
The infamous young woman on Lincoln St. who was pregnant, then not pregnant, accused of being a fake pregnancy, of abusing her child by panhandling, then crippled, now walking without crutches - possibly the most hated person in Worcester - has how had her baby taken away by Child Services. Her husband was staying at home with the baby, because - hated or not - she was able to collect more money. I haven’t spoken to her since this happened.  She is by the way a very sweet, straightforward young woman with a strong will to survive.  I'm sure she's devastated.
My suggestion:
1. The Worcester City Council should commend the Worcester Police for keeping order with soliciters on sidewalks and traffic islands, encourage them to continue building relationships with signers and get tough on the ones who cause disturbances, hazards or intimidation.   Then pass no further ordinances.
2. The City Council calls a joint meeting of the appropriate Committees to determine what has happened with promises to address availability of low income no-deposit housing and getting homeless into rooms, and report back very soon with proposals for how to move this forward.
3. Included in the housing discusion should be the matter of shelter beds for people who can’t prove they’ve been Worcester residents for at least two years. Homeless and unemployed people move around looking for jobs. That doesn’t make them invaders. Out there in the cities of America and around the world are thousands of unemployed sons and daughters of Worcester wandering in search of finding a job, a home, a chance at a real life. How do we want them treated? Should they all come back to Worcester?
4. The City Council should call hearings, to which our State and US Reps are to be invited and encouraged to attend, concerning the delays and level of payments for SSI and SSDI claimants, and to produce recommendations for City, State and Federal actions to raise payments to a true subsistence level and help people survive the waiting period for their claims.

5.  Final suggestion: City Council to hold hearings, with State and US legislators invted, on General Relief, cash payments to any job seeker who has exhausted or was never able to collect. Right now for childless able-bodied individuals there is no cash assistance at all once their benefits run out.
I’m amazed frankly at how few sign-holders there are, given how many people I meet with no income at all. Nationally there are perhaps 40 million unemployed or underemployed. In Worcester proper there are easily 20,000 unemployed and involuntary part time workers, more likely 25,000. They are everywhere and they are invisible and increasingly desperate and hopeless. The sign-holders are the tip of a very large iceberg. The good leaders of our fair City need to be dealing with the iceberg.
When you remove the tip of an iceberg, more often than not it will roll over to expose a new tip, swamping anyone trying to stay on top!

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