There were two of them Saturday afternoon, one working the north side of the intersection, the other on the south, both brandishing the usual cardboard signs, and it was at this point that I decided that I'd about had it up to here with panhandlers.

Or maybe it wasn't. A week and a half ago, I dropped by a Braum's, and on the way in, a chap asked me for 50 cents to buy a gallon of gas. "If you can get a gallon of gas for half a buck," I snapped, "you're a better man than I." The better man muttered something under his breath, but he wasn't there when I got back.

Which might have been the last of it, except that a week later, I was at that same Braum's, and somebody else was apparently getting ready to work the same scheme this time, with a shiny new red plastic gasoline can. "They're using props now?" I marveled.

The police are not thrilled with this development either. "There used to be a time when you didn't ever see someone with a cardboard sign in an intersection asking for money," said Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Paco Balderrama. But now they're ubiquitous: almost every day I can see one at either 39th and Penn or along Northwest Distressway near Penn Square. I make a point of passing through no more than one of these areas a day, just to minimize exposure to the beggars.

People whose hearts bleed red with simulated compassion will no doubt chide me for my lack of sensitivity. "Walk a mile in their shoes," they'd say. Actually, most of them seem to have better shoes than I do, and I'm pretty sure they didn't walk from the shelters, which tend to be west of downtown, all the way to Penn freaking Square.

But causing me annoyance is hardly a hanging offense. (Otherwise, there'd be a worldwide rope shortage right about now.) What's happening here is that people who do need help, and I presume there are a few such on the streets, are going to be spurned because we can't distinguish between who's really begging and who's really bogus. And locking up everyone who asks for spare change runs into serious First Amendment issues, which is not something to be encouraged.

The City of New York had an idea. Steven Malanga writes in City Journal:

New York, fed up with the disorder, began to crack down on panhandling in the early nineties. The effort started in the subways, spearheaded by the [William] Bratton-led Metropolitan Transit Authority police, who combined policing with outreach efforts for homeless beggars willing to come in off the streets. The cleanup continued when Bratton became [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani's first police commissioner in 1994 and took on the squeegee men insistent panhandlers who intimidated Manhattan drivers by washing their car windows and then demanding payment. After a study by criminologist George Kelling found that three-quarters of the squeegee men weren't homeless and that half had felony records, cops began arresting them for blocking traffic. That put an end to the shakedowns in a matter of weeks.

The city then extended the anti-panhandling campaign to other parts of the city, including beggar-dominated Times Square. Central to the crackdown was the Midtown Community Court, an experimental judicial body to which police could drag quality-of-life arrestees the very day they issued citations. Working with social-services providers who offered help to those needing it, the court acted with lightning speed, usually giving community-service sentences to those willing to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, so that someone arrested for panhandling in the morning could be cleaning the neighborhood by the afternoon. The immediate results gave police a strong incentive to enforce the city's long-moribund quality-of-life statutes; previously, if an officer issued a quality-of-life citation, the panhandler had a month or longer to respond to the summons and often didn't show up in court on the appointed day. As with the subways and the squeegee men, the campaign was a huge success.

How the court works:

Typically in these cases, judges are forced to choose between a few days of jail time and nothing at all sentences that fail to impress the victim, the community and the defendants that these offenses are taken seriously. In contrast, the Midtown Community Court sentences low-level offenders to pay back the neighborhood through community service, while at the same time offering them help with problems that often underlie criminal behavior. The Court works in partnership with local residents, businesses and social service agencies in order to organize community service projects and provide on-site social services, including drug treatment, mental health counseling, and job training.

Oklahoma County's Drug Court works similarly, though its clientele is obviously limited to drug offenders. Expansion of its jurisdiction is probably not in the cards, and besides, the county's major concern right now is what to do about the jail.

This leaves one alternative, which borders on the draconian: invoke the specter of the Internal Revenue Service. Instead of giving someone a buck, we hand over 60 cents and a 1099-MISC. "By law, we're withholding forty cents for taxes. Be sure you report this on your return next year." Odds are. the guy won't even hang around to get his change, let alone give out his Social Security number.

The Vent

  23 August 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill