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Bum's Cathedral

By Kathy Y. Wilson · December 19th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide

They handed out fleece-lined jackets. Grady Cook got one. We gathered in the basement of the Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church Dec. 14 for the annual dinner of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

Cook is a veteran Streetvibes vendor, the one with the demure demeanor. I see him standing in scorching heat and bone-breaking cold, sometimes holding forth and always offering Streetvibes, the progressive chronicler of homelessness.

At the dinner he received the Ambassador Award for getting the ear of the uninitiated and for getting permission to sell papers at more locations without being threatening. It's in the way he talks.

"Streetvibes has helped me to get over (my shyness)," Cook said, addressing the dinner crowd. "When I was a young man, it was hard for me to talk to people and express my feelings about things that would make a difference. I'm just truly overwhelmed. Y'all gotta excuse me."

Overcome with emotions, Cook left the podium without his jacket.

We at the dinner were the choir, and in preaching to one another the resounding message was the disconnection of city officials.

There are problems causing and exacerbating homelessness that are overlooked. Ills like drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, broken families disintegrating beneath poverty and (barely a) living wage conspire against folks who can't hop off the nonstop wheel.

Instead of investigating those problems in isolation, politicos fashion a three-headed Chia Pet of homeless people, panhandlers and vendors. It's a scapegoat.

The sight and behavior of the homeless and jobless threaten our comfort, wiggling our guilt into hostility and misunderstanding. That's how it is on the street.

It's why the mainstream media are rife with tales of suburbanites beating it back to their enclaves after being accosted by shadowy homeless people and panhandlers.

It strikes me strange that reporters and politicians never find a homeless person or panhandler to ask about pending ordinances and resolutions soon to directly effect the homeless. Yet, in the name of titillation and manipulation, they're mythologized when it's time to do something about them.

And isn't that what this is about -- classism and appearances?

Councilman Pat DeWine, chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, is pushing for passage of a new ordinance. If the law committee likes it, panhandlers will be registered and licensed, an education program will discourage pedestrians from making contributions to panhandlers, judges will treat violators more severely and other issues like single-bottle alcohol sales will be examined.

This is a Swiss cheese piece of government work.

Americans enjoy telling the downtrodden where they went wrong and that they're downtrodden. And "registration" and "licensing" are code words for "keeping track of ... for the purposes of identification and harassment."

An "education (public relations) program" discouraging "contributions" sounds suspiciously like the birth of another brochure -- i.e., last spring's embarrassing "Cincinnati: We're on the Move!" technicolor campaign trotting out our Negroes to perspective conventioneers as proof that cops weren't shooting all of us.

The truth is pedestrians refering panhandlers to social programs and shelters is as unlikely to occur as the successful registration and licensing of panhandlers.

City leaders are subversively trying to convince the citizenry en masse to consider panhandlers -- aggressive or otherwise -- as a corralled group of lowlifers who should stop begging. They want us giving panhandlers the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-strap speech they'd give panhandlers if any of them bothered to talk to actual people on the streets.

In doing so, we'll be helping frightened suburbanites who feel profiled by their privilege feel better about their privilege and keep coming downtown.

DeWine has long been a Pied Piper criminalizing poverty and raising the shame of the lower class. He's the one who introduced the spring ordinance forbidding panhandling after dark and near bus stops, bank entrances and ATM machines. The law also forbids panhandlers' use of "profane or abusive language."

I find DeWine's language profane.

"Taxpayers pay for the sidewalks and pay for the streets," DeWine said. "They ought to be able to come downtown and use those facilities without being harassed."

It proves skewed ownership. Actually, if a man is sleeping in a doorway near an ATM and I stop to use the machine, he's not on my sidewalk. I'm in his living room.

Taxpayers also pay DeWine's salary, and we ought to be able to come downtown and not be harassed by council's lack of ideas and planning.

The issue is wrapped in classist separatism. We want to rid ourselves of what we don't understand because it frightens us, and it's easier to be afraid.

Before I knew Grady Cook's name, I wondered about him. Next time I see him, I'll call him by name. Yeah. Grady Cook.

They all have names, Councilman DeWine. Talk to them and ask them if they feel harassed.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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