It’s a hard world...even in a Ben and Jerry’s scoop shop. Sitting there immersed in a book about J.R.R. Tolkien, a small bowl of butter pecan ice cream as my sole companion, I glanced up when a panhandler came in asking if anybody had a dollar. Before I could react, a loud menacing male voice bellowed, “Hey, get the hell outta here. You can’t do that there here.” It was a man seated next to the door who had been working his cell phone.
He looked up at the panhandler with a threatening expression on his face. The badly frightened panhandler quickly backed out on to the sidewalk. I got up and walked out the door. I caught up with panhandler who warily took my dollar. He still looked pretty scared, but was composed enough to thank me. As I walked back into Ben and Jerry’s, Mr. Cell Phone looked up and said,” He’s just going to come back you know.” I didn’t even look at him and said quietly, “Yeah, well that’s his problem.”
Oak Park Ben and Jerry's
Didn’t Mr. Cell Phone know that Ben and Jerry’s was founded by two good hearted people? Being heartless in a Ben and Jerry’s was a Newt Gingrich moment, especially around Christmas time. Honestly though, my decision to give the panhandler the dollar was not based solely on human compassion. I was really pissed at Mr. Cell Phone and figured that was the best way to stick it to him. His disrespect and implied threats had pushed my buttons.
This happened in the liberal Village of Oak Park IL where the Village government and the business community wants panhandlers to disappear. Mr. Cell Phone was saying in his blunt and nasty way what the local business community wants too. Get the hell out.
Pat Zubak, president of Downtown Oak Park, a local business association, was quite frank about the economic reasons as reported by our local paper, Wednesday Journal:
"I get asked for money every single day, and it's unpleasant every single day," said Zubak. "You feel like people have invaded your space. I am concerned about tourists and people who are shopping — what kind of impressions they have of Oak Park. I've seen the tourist buses pull up at Unity Temple and people getting off the bus — and the panhandlers are waiting right there."
Pat Zubak of Downtown Oak Park was especially concerned about panhandlers being around for the holiday shopping season.The irony of running off panhandlers in a holiday season supposedly devoted to generosity and giving seems lost on Ms. Zubak. Downtown Oak Park’s solution is to hand out palm cards to panhandlers with the contact information of local social service agencies. Give palm cards, not cash.
The Palm Card
The message about helping those in need was framed in an odd way though. At a community meeting, the case of Lester Davidson was brought up as an example of a typical Oak Park panhandler. Davidson has been arrested 70 times. He assaulted an Oak Park man in 2010 and was prosecuted for it. But Oak Park panhandlers rarely assault people. We do have violent street robberies in Oak Park, but they are committed by your garden variety street thugs. And what about the safety of Oak Park’s panhandlers? Branding them as dangerous criminals only makes their street life more precarious. And what possible good could come from sending supposed "dangerous criminals" to a shelter or a food pantry?
Downtown Oak Park
across from the Ben and Jerry's
The palm cards with their list of helpful agencies might be useful to new Oak Park panhandlers, but even the neophytes are out there for the money and the Oak Park regulars are well aware of where to seek help. The cards are really to assuage the consciences of the non-panhandling Oak Park population and discourage them from giving money.
Oak Park’s liberal reputation comes mainly from its storied past. Back in the 1970’s, when neighborhood re-segregation was happening all over Chicagoland, Oak Park stood up for racial desegregation. It is still a desegregated community, but not exactly an integrated community. There is a racial achievement gap in the schools. Forums about race in the community always reveal examples of discrimination, both obvious and institutional. But by US standards, Oak Park could do far worse.
It is in the area of social class where the boundaries of Oak Park’s supposed “liberalism” are most obvious. In a non-binding referendum, Village residents overwhelming favored a Living Wage ordinance. The Village government, under pressure from the business community, refused to pass an ordinance. The Village government is also on a privatization crusade to eliminate decent paying public sector jobs and outsource them to private contractors. Some of these jobs are unionized. New housing is heavily weighted toward upscale condos when Oak Park needs more affordable housing for its working class population.
Panhandlers are not the only people with economic problems in "liberal" Oak Park.
A police crackdown could reduce the Oak Park panhandling population, but the cops are wary about actually doing that. A police state in Downtown Oak Park would be expensive, unpleasant and the target of civil liberties lawsuits. Oak Park cop Mike Mangaser said this at a community meeting, "If someone asks you for money, they are within their First Amendment rights. "We're looking at the assaults, when they start yelling and calling you names." Oak Park cops already have plenty to do, as can be seen in the police blotter published in the local newspaper.
Official repression of panhandlers demands considerable attention and resources. In Tudor England, panhandlers , called “sturdy beggars”, were subjected to forced labor, the stocks, whipping, branding and even execution. Continued revisions of English Poor Laws suggest that even these severe punishments did not alleviate the problem. England was undergoing serious economic upheaval with parallels to today. Poverty was severe. Very severe.
People will do what they have to do to survive in an economically depressed society. Unless you like living in a police state, panhandlers are here to stay unless conditions change---big time.
Sturdy Beggar Being Whipped
Oak Park resident John Hubbuch said this,”Panhandlers are a part of society. We need to see them. They are our dark mirror. They are reminders that but for God, luck or fate go us.” We live in a badly broken dysfunctional economy and panhandlers are a stark reminder of that.
But I would go much further than John Hubbuch. If the Oak Park business community is so damned concerned with panhandlers, why didn’t they offer public support to Occupy Wall Street, a movement that wants an economy that minimizes the poverty. Except for a few banks and chain stores, the Oak Park business community is Main Street, not Wall Street. Why doesn’t our business community throw its weight behind a living wage ordinance and labor law reform? Minimize poverty and you minimize the need for panhandling. Maximize working class income and you have more paying customers. You’re business people for cryin’ out loud. Do the math.
Why don’t they raise hell about the drastic cuts in mental health centers and other social services? People with serious personal problems are less likely to end up on the street if they have better alternatives.
As for Mr. Cell Phone and other Oak Park residents who insult and disrespect panhandlers, homeless people and poor people in general, heed the words of John Hubbuch above. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. The economy could get a lot worse and you could be the scared newbie on the streets. So you’d be wise to check out How to Panhandle for emergency advice in case you ever need it. If you don’t want to give money to panhandlers, fine. But keep your insults and disrespect to yourself. Life on the streets is hard enough as it is.
If someone hassles you on the street in a threatening manner or assaults you, by all means report it if you are willing to show up in court. But it is unlikely that your assailant will be a panhandler.
Personally, I try to carry a small supply of dollar bills with me and hand them to panhandlers until I run out. I’ve been doing it for years, although business has picked up since the 2008 crash. If they outlaw panhandling, then I’ll have to be an outlaw donor. In all my years of doling out modest sums of money around Chicagoland, I’ve only been threatened by panhandler once. He didn’t get a dime from me. He eventually went to jail for assaulting an El passenger.
I wish there were a way to punish society’s most dangerous panhandlers though. You know, the ones who slip out of their K Street offices and panhandle Congress for millions in order to profit off war, environmental destruction, labor exploitation, poisonous food and a long list of other crimes.
Could we bring back the stocks for them? Maybe just for a day while they await further sentencing? The YouTube video would be priceless.
“Taking a closer look at panhandling in Oak Park” Wednesday Journal, November 29, 2011
“Oak Park to discourage giving cash to panhandlers” Chicago Tribune November 22, 2011
“Don’t pin it on the panhandlers.” Wednesday Journal, November 29, 2011
“Coming face to face to face with poverty” Wednesday Journal, November 29, 2011
“Figuring out Oak Park’s living wage ordinance” Wednesday Journal, August 18, 2009
“Village of Oak Park may outsource legal staff” Wednesday Journal, December 13, 2011
Rogues, vagabonds, & sturdy beggars by Arthur F. Kinney
“We need panhandlers” by John Hubbuch December 16, 2011.
Edmonton Panhandling Study by Joshua Freistadt
Stronger Than Dirt: Public Humiliation and Status Enhancement among Panhandlers by Stephen E. Lankanau
Panhandling by Michael S. Scott, US Department of Justice