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G-Sync: Hitting the Streets to Ask the Right Questions

The issue of panhandling is as old as time, and City Hall is once again considering a new ordinance. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen takes to the streets, curbs, and encampments for a new P.O.V. on inequality.
I like stories that check out as presented. Our city does, too. This is played out from coffee shops to newspapers to even those that we meet literally on the street.

If you listen to the many conversations happening more and more here in our community, the common narrative is that the less privileged, especially those visible to the public, have many choices of how to spend their days.

Some may choose to simply recline in any number of the parks in our city, share a story of a past life, urinate in a business alcove, or simply joyously sing out into the thin urban air, with it's street-level combination of car exhaust and humidity interacting with the body's dry skin under the glaring heat of our 80-plus degrees of summer.

It is, after all, such a glamorous life, according to those whom I spoke with last week regarding the conditions they labor under while standing at the corner with one of the many clever cardboard signs used to capture our attention.

(End sarcastic rant.)

In the Bible – please stick with me – I learned as a child about a verse in Matthew 26:11 in which Jesus said, "For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me."  

In fact, being a junior sleuth at such a tender, young age, as I studied the sacred texts I noticed that, while some stories are recorded solely in one of the Gospels, this particular tale was so popular (and thus seemingly so important) that it was recorded not twice but three times with Mark 14:7's "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me," and then finally John 12:8's version, "You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."   

In a city transfixed on making sure those curbside cardboard messages corroborate  the panhandler's reality, we have to be extra careful we do not overstep just as we are asking this population to reign in their aggression in their midst. We have to dig deeper into this story.

This past weekend, I listened to stories of how a man asking for money was beaten up by folks leaving a downtown bar late at night. In addition, a female person asking for money on the streets of our city was also assaulted. (My source asked to remain anonymous to protect their position within a care facility.)

"Oh my God." The words fell out of my mouth. "I hope they called the police."

The person sharing this story sat back and said, "Really, Tommy. Do you think people who are often treated less than human by society are going to file a report?"

They were right.

How I Ended Up on the Streets

So, how did I end up walking the streets of Grand Rapids to do my own research on this issue? To quote another author, Woody Allen, from his film Hannah and Her Sisters: "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he would never stop throwing up." As I walked around in the rising summer heat, I reflected on how I ended up there and knew it was Shelley Irwin's fault.

While Rapid Growth's Jeff Hill often brings a group of area business leaders to the WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin at 88.5 FM each month, this year Hill decided to switch things up. He started a new quarterly segment, The TNT Edition, with Tyler Nickerson, community activist, and me (the other T) as Rapid Growth's Lifestyle Editor to discuss a few hot topics making their way through the community.

This past week, one topic we discussed with Irwin was the city's recent tied vote on what to do about the panhandlers in our city.

While a recent lawsuit made it crystal clear that asking for assistance on the public streets is protected under the Constitution of the United States, the tactics one employs in asking for money are the subject of a hot debate in the chambers and public comment walls of numerous media outlets, from MLive to The Rapidian to nearly every TV and radio station in our city.

It was during our rapid-fire radio banter on the topic about what would be an appropriate response in crafting an ordinance that Irwin leveled the question that brought crickets to the airwaves as we three sat mute: "Has anyone asked the panhandlers what they would want?"

But Irwin was right.  We have spent a lot of time talking about how they should act but rarely has anyone really got to them to ask them their thoughts. Matt Vande Bunte of MLive contributed a nice piece that helps us fill in the gaps in our research by asking the best questions in his piece: "Have you seen these 5 panhandlers?"

In our quest to get it right, so many of us, including myself, have been placing a lot of focus on a behavior that even Jesus knew was not going away. As a result, we haven't even begun to touch on the subtle humor of a greedy and money-focused Judas who would end up selling out Jesus in the end. The bigger matter here that Jesus is addressing is our hypocrisy.

For as we talk about panhandling, with our pontification on how much money they make to whether they really drive nicer cars than you and me, we are often guilty of wandering far from the very topic linked to this behavior: inequality.

Asking The Right Questions

More and more people are beginning to ask for greater accountability from our government organizations and our nonprofits who serve these populations.

Talk to anyone number of folks on the street and you learn who is treated with dignity and who is not. We need a new guiding document that is committed to the transformation of all of our organizations that serve the poor. It is clear to me as I spend more and more time within area groups that everything has to be on the table for discussion.

I would strongly suggest that we do not simply do the same things  we have done in the past by putting a Band-Aid on the visible symptoms of poverty. I recommend we recruit both new and familiar names to be strong and insightful change agents in our city who will push for more creative, comprehensive and innovative solutions built around successful models. We need to consider housing, education, health care, and access to opportunity as a way of providing a ladder out of untenable situations for poor families and individuals.

In Grand Rapids, even if we do take strong corrective steps to eradicate people from exit ramps and storefronts, as with any action against the poor, if we do so without addressing root causes, then I seriously doubt it will be the last word on the matter.

Regardless of what you believe, why are we obsessed with panhandling when we need to dig deeper? How can we talk about panhandlers and the homeless without talking about the income inequities of our society? How will we treat "the least of these"? And dare I say it for fear of a cynical echo, "What Would Jesus Do, Really?"

When I spoke to folks on the street, one thing stood out from all of them--they want more. Not the greedy more but the opportunity to return to what it was that they were before whatever gripped them tossed them into this life.

The Problem Is Aggression

Sure, I agree aggressive panhandling is not a cool thing for a city, a business or even a person walking on the street, but we need to make sure we do not overreach by crafting a solution that not only criminalizes being poor but makes it even harder for them to get back to where they need to be. As one friend said so eloquently as I struggled to make sense of a solution, "Let's not make being poor harder than it needs to be."

"We have to be careful in our actions and remember that at some time in our lives, we have all needed a helping hand," says Duke, a veteran who offered me sausage but not his real name for fear of retaliation. "We don't want to step on people who are already down. How does the saying go? Be careful who you step on on your way up since these are often the same people you pass on the way down. Trust me; there is no pride in having to beg for money."

It is easy to make decisions for others like Duke when we do not stop and ask them what they need or find out about their story. If we encounter a panhandler on our way to watch Les Miserables at Civic Theatre, then the irony of the situation is why we need to address our hypocrisy.

When the topic of income inequity is making the front pages of other city newspapers and the number-one bestseller is the hot summer read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it is clear that we need to go back to the drawing board with many of these matters in our society.

One thing I enjoy about being in this city is that we do have a willingness to explore the unknown in the hopes that we finally get it right. Most agree that aggressive panhandling should be curbed, but we should also be careful how we apply any rules about seeking money, keeping in mind the right to freedom of speech.

"I think we need to remove all the language that references the topic of distance from the ordinance since aggressive panhandling is not limited to just humans," says Sarah Scott, art coordinator at the Heartside Gallery and Studio. "If we are going to have real dialogue about what is aggressive selling and seek to remove the person from the streets, then we need to also take down all the billboards and other forms of aggressive signage in our city."

Sarah is right on this matter -- and not far off from another movement afoot in other parts of the world that seeks to limit and curb the intrusion of aggressive panhandlers for corporate giants who place billboards in our neighborhoods as well as in the urinals where we seek personal (and private) relief. (With thinking like this, I sincerely hope Scott is one of the folks invited to future planning sessions and committees.)

Yes, we may always have the poor, but we will also hopefully have people committed to a solution through the loving lens of history that informs us that what happens to one happens to us all.  

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

This week's G-Sync Events is devoted to the power of the festival to help us witness the diversity of a region's growth and the opporutnities to make a world-class splash from here. G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Editor's Note: This week's exploration could not have been possible without the many men and women I spoke to in our community. And because of real fears of retribution, almost none of them wanted their real names used or referenced. I have elected to be their voice in this editorial in the hopes that what they shared will be considered by those with the power to enact a thoughtful but loving response. It is my wish that we will continue to create dialogue with all members of our community -- and not just those who can make it to City Hall.

All photos by Tommy Allen except photo collage of the citizens of Grand Rapids' Heartside neighborhood. Collage section previewed above is from Helen Van Essendelft whose office is entirely decorated floor to ceiling with the faces of folks she has encountered during her time in Heartside. It is a stunnig site to see.

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