What should I be doing instead of this?
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Street Life

By Kathy Y. Wilson · December 13th, 2001 · Your Negro Tour Guide
Panhandlers are a nuisance.

Panhandlers are necessary.

It's that time again when people are debating the very presence of panhandlers. In doing so, the lifeline of downtown's economic pulse always seems to come into question.

If I come downtown, will I be harassed? Should I make eye contact or keep walking? If I pull money out, will I be robbed? Why can't they just get a job?

To some politicians, pencilnecks and business owners alike, the answer to all panhandling-related questions is: They're killing business, so get rid of 'em.

Mayor Charlie Luken himself has drafted one of his infamously terse one-liners to the City Solicitor's Office: "I move that the Solicitor's Office draft an anti-panhandling ordinance that sets panhandling restrictions as strict as possible, consistent with constitutional guarantees."

I read that as: Wear down the dirty little buggers with as much harassment as possible without blatantly stepping on their constitutional rights.

The mayor sends another bouquet of love to the homeless at Christmas time, claiming the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) is doing Cincinnati a "disservice" by "arming" homeless folks with newspapers. He's referring to Streetvibes, the monthly paper published by the GCCH covering homelessness and poverty-related issues sold by trained, badge-wearing homeless people for a one dollar donation.

Vendors get to keep 80 cents of each dollar they bring in. The rest goes to the paper's administrative costs and other overhead.

The existence and selling of Streetvibes is the manifestation of the American work ethic that, ironically, anti-homeless and anti-panhandling naysayers accuse the aforementioned of being without.

It speaks to professional disposition, entrepreneurship and a real bootstrap mentality that are the collective antithesis of what we think homelessness is.

For my (literal) money, I'd rather be hit up by someone with wares to sell. For the panhandled, exchanging a buck for a tangible item makes the quandary of "whatare theydoinwithmymoney?" easier to swallow.

For vendors selling Streetvibes, "panhandling" is a job. In this respect they're no different than hot dog vendors and the people selling all that loud, garish stuff during Jazz Festival weekend.

For Luken to say newspaper vendors are "armed" and doing us a "disservice" is a revelation of his shortsightedness and cultural alienation. Why not leave it up to Joe and Jane Schmoe as to whether they'd like to purchase a paper? Or is the idea that a "working" citizen just might have a conversation with a "panhandler" frightening to our public officials?

I buy Streetvibes when I can, just like a whole bunch of other people. And when I can't, I look a vendor in the face and say either, "No, thank you," or, "I've got one already." How difficult is that exactly?

Between the lines of all this brouhaha over the "panhandler question" is the subliminal picture painted by detractors that panhandlers love what they do and that there's glamour in begging all day long.

True, there are panhandlers who are sane, able-bodied, free from addiction and might very well be drawing some type of monthly assistance. For them, panhandling is a way to get over.

But even to that extreme, think about just how much they're getting over financially. Oh, the motherload of coins they dump onto their beds at night boggles the mind! They probably get naked and roll around on them until every penny sticks to their skin!

Let's get real. Panhandling in Cincinnati comes down to what every other issue in Cincinnati comes down to -- class.

Panhandling is classless, it's dirty, it's degrading, it's humiliating and it's uncomfortable. And I haven't even gotten to what it must be like for panhandlers.

Ridding city streets of panhandlers has little to do with business fallout or safety and everything to do with aesthetics and how uncomfortable many people feel about dirty people asking for money.

I'll admit it's hard for me to ignore a panhandler as I clutch a frothy $3 coffee drink and a $7 bag of lunch or after I've just paid $5 to $7 to park my car. See, those are all amenities and not necessities.

I'm not trying to guilt anyone into anything. When it comes down to you and the panhandler, think about your own comfort level and give up the coinage or don't. If you don't, try not to walk away bad-mouthing the homeless for something the mayor is trying to socialize you into believing.

Hey, if we really gave this some thought, we'd all go down to Saks Fifth Avenue and panhandle them for some designer gear by Ralph Lauren, Prada, Gucci, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger. And maybe we'd get our hair done for free, too.

Oh, never mind. Saks already panhandled us for $6.6 million.

I understand if you don't have any spare change for the homeless.



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