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As major cities crack down on panhandling, people of faith wrestle with their consciences

A man begs for money on a street during a heat wave in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) Driving to his downtown clothing business, Hans Herman Thun finds it impossible to ignore the beggars.

They catch his attention with handwritten, cardboard signs such as “Homeless and hungry,” “Anything helps! God bless” and even “I’ll be honest — I could really use a beer.”

Thun, a self-described born-again Christian, works as a tailor for prominent customers such as University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.

Hans Herman Thun said he believes God wants him to help panhandlers. Photo courtesy of Hans Herman Thun

The owner of Hans Herman Custom Tailors said he does his best to help those in need.

“If I’ve got money, and it’s easy for me to get over and give them money, I do,” Thun said. “What the Lord taught me is, I have a responsibility to give. What they choose to do with the money is between them and the Lord, and he can work with them in regards to stewardship.”

But in Oklahoma City and major cities across the nation, elected officials increasingly are passing ordinances that crack down on panhandling.

Typically, these ordinances make it a crime to approach vehicles or stand on medians at busy intersections. Supporters tout the ordinances as safety measures designed to protect the public as well as those seeking food or money.

In a number of cities, however, the ordinances are sparking legal battles with civil liberties advocates, who accuse communities of violating free speech rights and treating the homeless as “human blight.” In one week in May, opponents filed lawsuits challenging anti-panhandling laws in Houston; Pensacola, Fla; and the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy.

In this Bible Belt state capital, the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma are suing over a so-called “median safety ordinance.” The law, which took effect last year, “attempts to criminalize everything from panhandling to political speech and even neighbors talking to one another or walking their dogs in the grass,” said attorney Brady Henderson, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legal director.

“The same way that they look at a piece of property that is in disrepair and say that hurts the value — that hurts the enjoyment of life in the neighborhood — cities sometimes look at someone who is out in a median, who is in scraggly clothes and dirty and unshaven, and they look at that as blight,” Henderson said.

Chris Kibbe holds a sign asking for kindness near a busy shopping mall in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on July 31, 2016. “Lots of people are down on their luck and could use some help,” Kibbe said. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Earlier this month, Lexington, Ky., moved toward passing an anti-panhandling ordinance after the state’s high court struck down a previous measure. Meanwhile, Little Rock, Ark., began enforcing its prohibition on begging or soliciting in medians and roadways after two years of legal questions.

For many people of faith across the nation, the ordinances are igniting fresh debates over age-old questions: Does sparing a dime — or a dollar — at a street corner really make a difference? Or would donating the same amount to a charity serve to improve more lives?

“That is a complex issue,” said Paul Wilkerson, executive director of the River City Ministry in North Little Rock, Ark., which operates a day shelter, a food pantry, a clothing closet and medical and dental clinics. “We do have strong feelings about it, and when we talk to churches, we encourage them not to contribute to the folks panhandling. The vast majority of that money goes for drugs and alcohol.

“However, it is an emotional issue as well as a spiritual concern,” Wilkerson added. “So we always tell people not to feel bad about giving if the Spirit moves them to give. Ultimately, people have to live with their conscience and answer to the Lord.”

Street signs in Milwaukee discourage panhandling. Photo courtesy of James Haley

In addition to passing ordinances, some municipalities try to nudge residents toward nonprofit giving.

In Milwaukee, Wis., signs posted by the city urge: “Keep the Change. Don’t Support Panhandling. Help more by giving to charity.”

James Haley, director of Faith Builders Community Teams in Milwaukee, said he supports the city’s efforts to direct panhandlers to homeless shelters, food pantries and nonprofit organizations.

“Does it mean we can’t help people? I don’t think that’s what the ordinance is trying to do,” said Haley, who organizes an outreach called “After Dark” that delivers meals to people living on sidewalks and under bridges.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and dozens of interfaith leaders this month launched a public awareness campaign dubbed “Meaningful Change — Not Spare Change.”

The idea is that helping — in the form of giving to panhandlers — actually can hurt if it prolongs a person’s homelessness, said Amy Kelley, director of family ministries at a United Methodist church in Texas’ largest city.

Faith leaders gather with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to launch an anti-panhandling campaign called “Meaningful Change — Not Spare Change.” Photo courtesy of meaningfulchange.org

The ACLU of Texas is suing over Houston’s recently passed anti-encampment and anti-panhandling ordinances. But Kelley said she supports the restrictive measures, “as long as there is a plan in place to provide affordable housing, drug programs and whatever else it takes to assimilate our fellow man/woman into a sustainable living situation.

“Often, these encampments or tent cities are unsanitary, unsafe and a breeding ground for drugs and violence,” she added in an email. “This is not the way for our brothers and sisters in Christ to live. … Houston is not only ‘cracking down’ on homelessness and panhandling; Houston is lifting and building up humanity.”

In Lexington, city leaders last month unveiled an “End Panhandling Now” van that picks up homeless people and takes them to job sites.

Rabbi David Wirtschafter said he appreciates the Kentucky city’s effort to help panhandlers find gainful employment, even if he’d prefer a different message — “End Poverty Now.”

Rabbi David Wirtschafter says the government shouldn’t pass laws for the sole purpose of keeping people from feeling guilty about not helping panhandlers. Photo courtesy of David Wirtschafter

At the same time, Wirtschafter warns that not everyone begging on the streets is capable of working a $9-an-hour job.

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Wirtschafter, who leads Temple Adath Israel, just east of downtown Lexington.

The rabbi said he has no problem with anti-panhandling ordinances legitimately concerned with public safety. But someone who stands in front of a public library and peacefully asks for a dollar has that right, no matter how it might make the facility’s patrons feel, he said.

“Citizens don’t have the right not to feel guilty,” Wirtschafter said. “If the presence of a beggar that you choose to pass by and not give money to makes you feel badly, that’s between you and your conscience.”

Here in Oklahoma City, the Rev. Deborah Ingraham, executive director of the Skyline Urban Ministry, fought the anti-panhandling ordinance, which the city council passed 7-2.

Ingraham doesn’t dispute that panhandlers need better, more long-term solutions.

“But you don’t lecture someone who is hungry,” she said. “You give someone who is hungry food. Once they’ve got food, then you can talk to them.”

For his part Thun, the tailor, who is also board chairman for the Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command, said he has become more comfortable with Oklahoma City’s ordinance.

Panhandlers are resourceful, he said, and remain active and visible at locations not covered by the law.

He respects their plight — and, in at least one case, their honesty.

The guy who wanted money for a beer? Thun gave it to him.

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

18 Comments

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  • In much of the articles here on social issues the word “faith” is used a lot. Yet the comments often fall predictably into the liberal or conservative camps.

  • No one should be treated as blight. However, there are real traffic safety concerns with someone panhandling in a roadway. I’ve come close to hitting them on occasion. Moreover, consider the man in the photograph. He’s wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a padded windbreaker in a heat wave. Do we really think that giving him a quarter is going to help with the mental health issues that are likely driving his homelessness? I’m more supportive of programs to give people the resources they really need to get out of a bad situation — and that doesn’t cover day drinking.

  • I find this type of an article interesting when placed along side all the health care discussions.

    Many argue that the government should stay out of health care and caring for the poor and sick is the work of the church. If so and if the church could actually do something about it, why not address these types of issues rather than look for ways to make it harder for someone? No one is stopping the church from ending poverty.

    Why not forget the laws altogether and just address the systems that create this poverty? Seems like band-aid solutions.

  • I will agree with you that churches could be doing more. In fact, since there is so many organizations that deal with the marginalized, and people say they support programs for these needs, it just might be a way to get more people involved with the church. They are all lamenting how few people are going to church, well they could be “killing two birds” here by focusing on things people care about. It also gives a place where people can donate that will get to people (i hope).

  • “As major cities crack down on panhandling, people of faith wrestle with their consciences.”

    …So do people of no faith.

    Conscience, compassion, morality, mercy — these worthy attributes reflect character, not creed.

  • It is true that people of no faith wrestle with their consciences, as do people of faith.

    But since you DO possess a human conscience to wrestle with, that fact constitutes a flat-out disproof of your professed atheism. (All people are created equal; all creeds are not.)

    Human consciences do not originate from any natural laws or processes. They only come from the supernatural God of the Bible. “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.” (Rom. 2:15)

    So if you wrestle with your conscience as we all do at times, that makes you a living, rational, and permanent refutation of atheism. (And agnosticism too, for that matter!)

  • Faith — 1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

    Atheists; Agnostics; etc., also have faith. Faith that when they die nothing will happen. No need to single out ‘faith’ as only applying to people who believe in the supernatural.

    On a side note — always cracks me up when an agnostic and or atheist criticizes me for having ‘faith’ in Christ; shaming me for believing in a myth or a fairy tale. But in reality; they too believe in MYTH or a fairy tale. Who has died and has come back to tell us what exists beyond death? I know of One. Other than that, the honest person will admit, it’s a gamble.

  • I believe human conscience arises from our social nature (the recognition that we need each other) along with what we’re taught by our parents and other trusted authorities.

    My struggle with conscience is based on the guiding principles I have chosen (equality, respect, empathy, and familiarity), which in turn are based on what matters most to me (how we treat others and what they hold dear).

    I gratefully embrace what I admire most about Christianity — the Golden Rule — with the belief that it means I should respect other people’s spiritual/existential boundaries, beliefs, belongings, bodies, bedrooms, private lives, personal business (as in none-of-my), equal rights, and boundaries-respecting freedoms, as I would have others respect my own.

    So, of course, I respect others’ freely chosen theistic beliefs — I’m delighted they provide such important benefits as hope, comfort, belonging, meaning, structure, etc. — and, of course, I greatly appreciate and reasonably expect others’ respect for my freely chosen atheistic beliefs, which do not diminish or disrespect their religious beliefs in any way.

  • I should add that, regarding “proof”, my personal belief is that, since faith is essential to and integral to Christianity and other religions, proof/disproof is necessarily impossible. Proof would negate the challenge, emphasis, and virtuousness (or viciousness) of faith.

  • It’s a scam. City leaders just want the unsightly homeless out of sight. I’ve seen it happen here in St. Pete.They use the excuse of them being a danger to traffic but for some reason that does not apply to the local paper company who do the exact same thing when peddling their newspaper.

  • I think the ulterior motive of “getting more people involved in the church” misses the mark of true mercy. Jesus said “don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” In other words too often people give on one hand and on the other hand expect some sort of personal reward, be it recognition, having others join the band wagon, having broader support in society, etc. Jesus is saying, “There is only one hand–giving.” Were the churches more interested in dismantling structures that produce such inequity even their own structure would be very different.

  • “In a number of cities, however, the ordinances are sparking legal battles with civil liberties advocates, who accuse communities of violating free speech rights and treating the homeless as “human blight.”

    Since when is it a violation of the free speech rights of the homeless for cities clear them off public sidewalks and streets where they’re standing, sitting or lying down to beg money from the paychecks of working Americans? Those who drive on by silently are expressing their own “free speech rights!” They’re refusing to underwrite the pathologies of people who refuse to work–many of whom use the money they collect to support their drug and alcohol habits!

    I live in Denver where the unemployment rate is 2.6% and there are “Now Hiring–Apply Here!” and “Join Our Team” signs everywhere. Yet the number of those standing at freeway off-ramps seems to be increasing.

    Nothing helps anyone’s free expression rights like a job!

  • Phillip, by far the biggest “system that creates poverty” is no system at all! Poverty happens when people simply refuse to work to support themselves!

    (See my comment elsewhere on Denver’s low unemployment rate and the growth individuals panhandling at freeway off-ramps!)

  • While its a common belief that most people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work, its simply not true. From systemic injustice, to generational oppression, to unmet basic needs (like a home or health care), there are many reasons why people experience poverty. The least of these is a blatant and complete lack of desire to get a job.

    I was talking with a homeless guy who asked some really good questions “what do I put on the application when I don’t have an address? where do I tell them to call? how do I cash my cheque if I even get one?” and those are just the off the cuff issues facing someone who is homeless trying to get employed.

    The true indictment in the reality of the poor is that most of us think they deserve to be poor, see them as morally bad, and are ultimately willing to pay more in taxes to ensure they stay on the streets rather then get something they didn’t’ “earn” or “deserve”. Its really kind of sick.

  • Phil, you seem to really have a heart for the poor, and I really admire that!

    Realize that I didn’t say poor people are poor because they are lazy or immoral, and therefore deserve it. In my other posting I cited people standing by offramps with hand-lettered signs to claim other people’s money because that’s much easier than shaving, taking a shower and putting on clean clothes to go for a job interview! Lots of businesses in Denver are advertising for low-skilled workers, and our job market is so desperate that empoyers are offering starting pay somewhere North of $10/hour!

    In Denver we’ve experimented with lots of potential solutions to the problem of homeless people here. From the former Denver mayor–now governor of the state, campaigned for building more permanent housing for the homeless, (If you build it, they will come) to a 25-year-old program where an Episcopal church in a low-rent downtown area provides the homeless a place to spend the day, take showers, stash their stuff and have an email address and phone number that lets them get responses to their applications for employment. (Google “St. Francis Center, Denver, CO)They even have a lending library, and nice, roomy area where the children from homeless families can read and do homework.

    Another very successful solution was put forth in the late-90’s by a downtown Presbyterian church. They call their program “New Genesis,” and they address the addiction problems many homeless people have with pro bono counseling from downtown psychoterapists. They also teach resume writing and job interviewing skills, and provide temporary housing for a few weeks, until they become established in their jobs and can obtain their own low-cost housing. The feature that’s totally amazing to me is how New Genesis receives about 90% of its support from regular donations by former homeless people who decide they owe this tremendous organization something for the help they’ve received!

    Amidst it all, I still maintain that the biggest factor in unemployment anywhere in the US, is simply the absence of the WILL to go looking for a job!

  • Those all sound like great initiatives.

    I find the assertion that the issue is will amidst all that work and effort that you can see it takes to support people interesting. I also find it hard to reconcile that the issue is from your perspective is the will to go looking but that you don’t think people are lazy. Those seem like the same thing.

    I understand that you think its easier to pan handle than go and get a job, but I think that misses the reasons why many people pan handle. I’ll contend for the vast majority the issue is less of interest or will, but capacity and support. There is a lot of good research around housing first models (like you noted) but we don’t use those models often. If you spend time with people experiencing poverty, you’ll quickly find few want to be there.

  • Phil, I still believe everything starts and ends with one’s free will! I don’t buy into the idea that people are pawns of society, or that they are so helpless in their plight that they can’t see at least a few options that hold forth the possibility of improving their economic situation. The shrinks tell us that people change when the pain of maintaing things as they are is greater than the pain of risking change. Personally I’ve found this to be true!

    I believe to some extent, ALL hard decisions–for people of all socio-economic situations, experience some pain when faced with tough choices that cause them to leave their comfort zone. I find that in many of my own situations, the consideration that I, indeed, have free choice gets drowned out by all the easy rationalizations I use for maintaining the status quo and shouldering the discomfort that comes with it!

  • We all have free will and we all get to choose, but we are not all afforded the same choices. There’s a lot of really interesting research that says is your name is difficult to pronounce you are far less likely to get a call back than a person with an easy to pronounce name of similar qualification.

    Free choice is there, but to ignore the realities of the structures and systems we are forced to work within is idealistic at best. Stories of rags to riches are told because they are an anomaly not the norm. They fact that they are anomalies doesn’t rest on personal effort, but in many situations factors beyond most peoples control.

    It’s not an either or but a both and. To many of us leave it all on the shoulders of the person.

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