Thursday, March 30, 2006

Success At Addressing Panhandling Problem Will Take MPD's Help

Ok, we admit that downtown panhandling is a hot button issue for us, so we were doing our best to support the latest anti-panhandling campaign rolled out by Memphis Police Department, Center City Commission and others.

Our patience was short-lived. Last week, leaving Calvary Episcopal Church’s Lenten Preaching Services, uplifted after hearing Temple Israel’s Senior Rabbi Micah Greenstein, we were approached by a panhandler who seemed to spring from behind the church door as we were leaving.

“Can you give me some money to help me out?” he implored, and patiently, we mentally pulled up the information on the Center City Commission website about panhandling and told the scruffy, fragrant fellow that Calvary Episcopal had programs that could help him.

“No, I don’t want to go there, because they won’t help me,” he answered with an obvious lie. We continued to tell him about Calvary’s programs and about Union Missing, but he persisted. We walked two blocks with him in tow, and as if someone had hit his “repeat” button, over and over, he asked for money.

But, we were resolute, and we refused, and finally we escaped by climbing into the car. It was no deterrent, because he stood in front so we couldn’t pull out, tapping on the rear view window as he continued to ask for money.

Finally, we escaped, promising ourselves to keep things in perspective while wondering aloud where the police are when these every day occurrences in downtown Memphis take place.

Three days later, I pull into the Exxon gas station at Poplar Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard against my better judgment. I quit going there years ago, because of the ever-present panhandling, but my car’s on empty and I have no choice.

I’m barely out of my car when accosted by a burly man in a bulky coat. “I need some money for dinner,” he says, extending his hand.

“I’d be glad to buy you dinner inside,” I answer. “What can I get you?”

“I need some money,” he intones, as if I never made the offer.

“I heard you, and I’ll gladly buy you dinner if you tell me what you want,” I responded. This time, his hand pokes me in the side, as he says yet again, “I need some money for something to eat.”

Finally, after three more stanzas of this song, his frustration grew so much that he stomps off, uttering some comment that seemed to involve my mother and me and an Oedipal urge that I can promise you does not exist. Finally, my gas tank full, I go inside to pay, where a uniformed policeman is chatting up the clerk.

All in all, it reenforces the feeling that the entire anti-panhandling campaign is a “blame the victim” program destined for failure because of MPD’s lack of interest. Panhandlers have plied their trade with such impunity that they feel invincible. They’ll even hassle tourists with policemen in sight.

The price of such indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists who can never escape from the incessant threat of panhandling. And soon, it will get worse as the numbers swell, the regular summer resident moves into Barboro Alley where he’ll live in a sealed up window of the Butcher Shop, others will party under the windows of downtown lofts and the smell of urination will blend with the smells of the barbecue festival.

We’re trying to be philosophical this year, but it’s just so hard. This problem just seems to go on year after year, anti-panhandling campaign after anti-panhandling campaign.

Even the new program’s marketing seems conflicted. On one hand, the Center City Commission’s website rightly points out that most panhandlers are not homeless. “In fact, the vast majority of panhandlers are NOT homeless, and the vast majority of homeless do NOT panhandle,” the CCC says. “Generally speaking, panhandlers are strangers that approach you on the street to hustle you for money, which will most likely be used to buy drugs or alcohol.”

And yet, the posters taped in downtown windows implore us to “say yes to charities that help the homeless and the needy.” We agree that we will indeed say yes, but that seems to still leave us to deal with the panhandlers.

The FAQs on the Center City Commission website clarifies the behavior that is illegal. It is when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; it is illegal when done in a group of two or more people; it is illegal when it is perceived as a threat; it is illegal when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; it is illegal to assault someone or touch them while begging; and it is illegal to use false or misleading solicitations.

That’s helpful information, and we’ll keep it in mind as we begin the Summer games with Memphis’ regular panhandler population. We just hope someone shares this information with MPD and that it does something to send the message that this year is going to be different.

To repeat, this is not about the homeless. Less than five percent of homeless beg, according to research. While we launch another program, the Nashville police chief continues to make the battle against panhandling a priority for his force.

Cincinnati conducts a quarterly census, passes laws against panhandling and removes camp sites. Other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta, Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin led passage of a city ordinance that bans panhandling within the tourist triangle of her city, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic site.

The key to those cities’ success has been the buy-in by police departments which enforce the law. In truth, it’s a problem that we ought to be able to solve. The hard-core panhandlers downtown probably number about 100 people on the worst day. It just seems like more.

As for us, we’ll do whatever we can to help the homeless, but we would settle to get the panhandlers off the street.


Larry said...

The boldness and aggressiveness of pandhandlers is sometimes just amazing. I stand 6'3" and 220 lbs and they show no hesitation to harass me.

Usually it ends when I tell them I can call my former coworkers in law enforcement to find them a place to stay the night. I also have been known to pull back my jacket to reveal the pistol on my hip when they begin to get aggressive. Sometimes I just return aggressive behavior and he'll back off.

I can only imagine the apprehendsiveness an older people or people of smaller stature feel when one of these thugs harass them.

It's a serious problem and needs to be addressed. Law enforcement needs stronger laws that clearly give them authority to arrest without being accused of harassment themselves!

mike said...

My lack of sympathy for your plight is fueled by the daily fight I face with drug dealers and drug customers *right in my front yard*! I can at least get police attention and drive-throughs but there's little they can do about it when they don't see the transactions happen right in front of them.

The last MPD sweep downtown made no distinctions between homeless, mentally ill and the grifters. All were pushed into other neighborhoods outside the downtown... like mine. Thanks a million for all that fun we had for a month before they went back where the population concentrations are high enough to make pan-handling worthwhile.

I'm well familiar with the hustler problem at that TigerMart. What you should have done is complain to the manager on duty in front of the police officer. Ask her where security is, and why the parking lot isn't secure to customers.

Then -- DON'T GO BACK THERE! Period. Deny them your business. Contact their regional and national offices, tell them plainly what happened, and tell them you won't be going back until something's done.

Post on this blog, like you just did. Get the word out. Make it a public issue. Spread the word.

Nothing can be done downtown, since it's public space. But the TigerMart is private property. They can and should be doing something.

BTW, I love how you've just come out of church -- an inter-faith service no less -- filled with joy and the Word of God, and you immediately harden your heart. Over two bucks. Jesus loves you too fella.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: We share your frustration over the drug dealers, etc. None of it is acceptable, and despite all justifications by public entities to the contrary, they are preventable. Also, by the way, I was leaving Calvary Episcopal, which offers a multitude of programs and following the church's advice, I urged the panhandler to go there rather than give him money to enable his behavior. (As I always do, I offered to buy him the meal that he professed to want, but of course, he wasn't interested.) Your point about Tiger Mart at Poplar and Danny Thomas is perfect. I did say something to the manager, who shrugged it off and the policeman couldn't have cared less. Like you, I never shop there, but as I pointed out, I had no choice this time. SCC

mike said...

I think an apology is due from me for my angry attitude. I'm sorry. This is a sore point with me, and I reacted instead of thinking.

As for TigerMart, call the regional HQ. If you're comfortable with it, tell them who you are and are with, and mention that you have a widely read blog.

As for panhandlers, their presence is a direct function of urban density downtown (lots of folks to troll) and public space to use / exploit. (Vs. private space they can be evicted from.) I don't agree that criminalising their behavior, nor rounding them up and trying to move them out, are the solutions. Unless you're comfortable giving the police some very broad and overly powerful tools?

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: We know it's an open wound with you, and rightfully so. We didn't take it personally, because we knew it was out of character. I guess our difference is that this behavior (as opposed to homelessness) is already criminalized, and MPD needs to treat it as such, acknowledging that the criminal activity near your residence deserves even higher attention. SCC

PeskyFly said...

Mike, how often do you call the cops on your drug dealing neighbors? How about the landlord? We have laws that give neighbors some leverage in ousting nuciences.

Is moving an option? Vote with your money by telling the landlord that a good, rent-paying tennant is moving.

I'm being a little snarky, of course, but a bit of your own medicine seemed due.

mike said...

Good points, Pesky. I'll not hijack this blog in a long answer. We regularly call the cops. The landlord is also called regularly and demonstrably does not care.

Move? I'm too poor to. As an auto-less person I love the street's access to everything I need: post office, groceries, laundry, entertainment, fast food, several bus lines, good restaurants, etc. This used to be a good street until the landlords stopped caring.

Is that back on topic? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Once again its a chance to blame the police. I am a police officer who works the downtown area and panhandling has long been one of our biggest problems but our hands are tied. Larry said it best calling for stronger laws. We cite panhandlers on a daily basis only for them to go to court and the summons' are dismissed, yet, we continue to write them. Our actual arrests for other minor violations (Public Intoxication, Disorderly Conduct, etc.), which are common with panhandlers, are now being denied by the powers-that-be because "We are not going to prosecute that." An obvious effort to ease jail overcrowding at our expense and as Larry stated making it look as if police are harassing and making false arrests. Once in a while we do arrest panhandlers on a warrant if a court date is missed. Don't blame the police...blame the people you voted for. They make these pathetic laws and ordinances.

Jake said...

I read your post with great interest having just returned from Memphis as a "tourist" from Tampa. Im writing to you of my experience only to help you in your post.
I recently visited Memphis to see Graceland, Mud Island for a concert, and Beale St. I admit I was asked by a pan-handler at each one of the places mentioned for money. I remember seeing a police presence at each place, but they seemed too "busy" to address what you speak of here. Shame on the mayor, police chief, or whomever you mention is responsible for this. I also have to admit, maybe I "helped" the problem, by giving money?
The "foot patrol" on Beale St was busy talking to the shop owner, still open selling souvenirs, instead of maybe out front. Police walking the street would have cut out the guy asking me for money, when the streets were not quite closed, but not many other "tourists" out either. There were police however in cars on my walk from S.Main to Beale, finishing their paperwork no doubt from a massive two carridge accident with a Toyota pick-up. I felt safe "Walking in Memphis" :)
I was surprised it was difficult to get a bowl of Gumbo on Beale St. at only 11:40pm. Most of the responses I got from door personnel were that the kitchens were closed. It was a Tuesday night yes, but 12 seemed just a little too early to close. Again, I loved your city, and look forward to trying some gumbo there soon. Memphis is a jewel of the Mississippi. Having never seen the big river before, I was not let down.
Thank you again for your warm southern hospitality & hope to return soon. Peace~