I was trying to do a "person on the street" feature, approaching shoppers in a crowded big-box store parking lot to get their opinion on consumer prices. And it took me about two minutes to figure out that I needed to wave my reporter's notebook and announce loudly, "I'm a newspaper reporter. Can I ask you a couple of questions?" before getting too close to those who apparently felt more like prey than potential interview subjects.
Absent that across-the-gulf introduction, nearly all of them thought I was panhandling. And they didn't like it at all.
I found it quite amusing at the time, because I have my own mixed feelings about being approached by people claiming to be down on their luck and in need of a bit of change. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don't — and there's really no great formula that determines how I react. I simply do what I do at the time.
Polls have shown most Salt Lake City residents don't like panhandlers. A 2015 poll found the majority wanted the practice banned and Utah lawmakers at various levels have, in fact, passed laws related to panhandling. It's not allowed on freeway ramps, for example, where the practice is very physically dangerous. Some Utah cities have passed panhandling restrictions of various types. That's happening across the country.
El Cajon, California, is one of the latest communities at the center of controversy over how restrictive its laws should be regarding helping people who are homeless. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently covered an incident in which community members were issued misdemeanor citations for providing sandwiches to homeless individuals in a city park.
The City Council said it passed the ban on a temporary basis to reduce the spread of hepatitis A, which has swept through homeless populations there and elsewhere. But members of the group, called "Break the Ban," say they're more concerned about providing for those in need and that the spread of illness is an excuse "to punitively dehumanize and criminalize the homeless," according to the article. It quotes one of the group's attorneys, Scott Dreher: "It's discriminatory against a vulnerable class of people. Plain and simple. And on top of that, it abridges the First Amendment rights of the people who want to feed them."
For many years now, cities have tried to figure out the balance between the rights of people who are homeless and those who want to help them versus the interests of the city in dealing with related pressing issues. And opinions vary a great deal.
I find my heart and my head are sometimes at war when it comes to how to help. People who provide services to those who are homeless in my community have made it clear that funding programs does more good than giving directly to someone who might spend it on drugs or alcohol. I get that.
But being poor does not mean one gives up the right to make some choices; a person's rights should be intact regardless of life circumstance, unless one temporarily forfeits them because of actual criminal activity, and I don't believe being poor should be a crime. Nor is poverty one-size-fits-all. What helps one person may not be what another needs. What puts one person on the street is not necessarily universal.
We live in a world fraught with divisions, misunderstandings and outright intolerance. Criminalizing compassion is not likely to narrow the gap between people or solve problems in a very meaningful way. Instead, I'd hope more work would be done to educate people about the programs that are helpful and how to access them, as well as how to contribute to them. But we should continue to be grateful for those who are willing to show up and provide a helping hand to those with genuine need.