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Thoughts on Panhandling

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When a proposal first popped up over the summer to essentially do away with panhandling and solicitations on street medians in Oklahoma City, I was among those on social media who questioned why this was being demonized by young urbanists, community contributors and people I hold in high regard.

I engaged with them on Twitter, sharing my own experiences with panhandlers who were clearly scamming, news reports and other examples of how one should not assume one who panhandles is doing it because they are poor and need help.

Yes, I acknowledged, a percentage of the panhandlers are poor. I struggled with the possibility this change could hurt sales of the Curbside Chronicle. I love the Curbside Chronicle. I typically pay $5 for each $2 issue that comes out. If I could pay more to help the guys and gals who sell these magazines – folks truly in need, I would. It’s a great read and a great cause.

I then read a post by Louis Fowler on The Lost Ogle. I’ve never met the guy. But I like this writing (if he takes jabs at me or The Oklahoman, well that’s part of the gig. And nobody is immune from criticism).  And on October 28, Fowler wrote a piece that hit me hard.

Here’s a guy who is indeed among those who are among the working poor. He’s barely making it. I had heard this before, and it takes guts to admit it on an information/satire/commentary where no one is exempt from being roasted, fair or not.

So Fowler went out and panhandled. And even if my own estimate that it’s only 20 percent of panhandlers who are truly needy, I’m now ashamed. I’m ashamed of my callousness and lack of compassion. The cruelty, the name calling, the abuse of people who panhandle … no, I never meant to condone this. And yet I couldn’t stop wondering – had I done just that?

So I went quiet. People who agreed with my challenges fed me with links to more stories about panhandlers abusing people’s generosity.  I chose not to respond to tweets by either side of the issue. I listened, and tried not to even ask questions as people shared their views with me. I wanted to absorb it all and not risk saying anything further.

Then a panhandler died at one of the busiest spots - Memorial and May Avenue. Could I not question whether this completely validated need for the proposed ordinance? Could I also not, by doing so, trivialize this man's death? I didn't dare do so. To do so would be to fall into the same mistake I was making previously.

It ain't that simple folks. We live in a world where everyone wants issues to break down into shades of black and white. But the real world isn't like that - it's gray, it's painfully, confusingly, horribly gray.

I’m increasingly troubled by both sides, but not in a way that I think they are bad people doing bad things. I no longer hold the views I once did of panhandling, so I won’t repeat my original challenges and questions to panhandling. But I'm not falling neatly into the other camp's argument either.

Heck, we can't even agree whether panhandling was really at stake today. Maybe today’s vote approving the no panhandling and soliciting on street medians was truly just about safety. A lot of people on both sides, however, seem to think otherwise.

I better understand what is driving those opposed to the panhandling ordinance that was passed today by the Oklahoma City Council. But in the eagerness to fight it, I heard some ideas that also made me question whether they were inadvertently seeking to validate panhandling as the best option for our truly needy population.

It’s not good enough. Giving some change, giving a dollar here, a dollar there, won’t change lives. We need to get out of our damn cars if we really want to help and we really think we are seeing a person who needs help. We assume they know what help is available to them. I'm pretty sure that assumption is wrong.

I know we all live busy, crazy lives. But we can all help in our own way. Panhandling will continue on sidewalks. Can we all agree what’s been done up until now is not good enough? We need to figure out a better way. And if you have one shred of compassion, even a hint of belief in God or simply a realization we’re all stuck on this planet together and need to treat each other better,  end the abuse of those who for whatever reason, good or bad, have decided their best way to get money is to beg on the side of the street.

Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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