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Rise in Aggressive Panhandling?

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Well, it was about damned time for the tourism cabal to start kvetching about aggressive panhandling. It would hardly be an election season without it.
“Aggressive panhandling” is a term that conservative urban theorists like the right-wing think tank the Manhattan Institute and policy-makers like Seattle’s Mark Sidran began using in the 1990s to get around the First Amendment issues involved in trying to prohibit panhandling. You can’t prohibit someone for asking for change—a limitation like that on our free speech would also make advertising illegal. But by targeting the manner of the speech rather than the speech itself, Sidran and other restrictive city ideologues thought that they’d be able to avoid the more strictly First Amendment issues, while still getting at panhandlers, and demonizing them, to boot!
But it’s questionable how much aggressive panhandling actually exists. No one doubts that there are cases where the term applies well, but these cases are actually somewhat rare. When your best tools are sympathy and personality, aggression becomes simply a poor business practice.
What’s far more common is middle class people feeling uncomfortable around poor people and people of color, combined with the guilt that many who have money feel around those who do not. An important life lesson that some people have trouble learning is that our feelings are not always a reflection of other people’s actions. If a White person feels unsafe walking on the same sidewalk as Black people, it is by no means true that Black people are at fault for making that White person feel unsafe.
But the nature of racism and classism is that those with power can legislate their prejudices against others. And that’s the origin of most “aggressive” panhandling laws in this country. San Francisco’s “aggressive” panhandling law, passed in 2003 as part of the string of anti-homeless laws that characterized the Newsance mayoral administration, does prohibit certain activity that most of us would consider aggressive: using violent gestures, grabbing people. But it also includes such inoffensive tripe as asking a person for a donation twice, or walking along with a person while making an ask. This isn’t about aggression or about real safety: It’s about the comfort of those who have more when they are made aware of those who have less.
Recent media coverage of a supposed spike in “aggressive” panhandling has not clearly defined actual aggressive behavior versus mere street-level nuisance. Our political leadership has been even worse. A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle identified as “aggressive” panhandling:
Two men who plan to panhandle arguing verbally with one another
A man offering tourists directions
Panhandlers competing peacefully for a good panhandling spot
This lack of clarity in thinking has deep roots. In the 1990s, complaints about “aggressive” panhandling led to a San Francisco Police Department sting operation, during which officers wore bullet-proof vests underneath sweaters to protect them from menacing panhandlers. The officers involved were unable to get themselves spanged. Not a single “Spare a quarter…”!
While there seems to be very little correlation between complaints about panhandling and reality, there’s a very high correlation between complaints about panhandling and election season. Our current “aggressive” panhandling law came about as part of the 2003 mayoral election, and was accompanied by a $65,000 campaign from the Hotel Council that claimed—among other things—that panhandlers spread venereal disease (the Hotel Council seems to have two contradictory views about aggressive panhandling—judging from its own track record spanging for tax breaks at City Hall.)
Incumbent Mayor and now candidate Ed Lee has risen above the tradition of his most recent two predecessors: his proposed solution to panhandling in Union Square is a day labor program. This plan is replete with problems.
First, it’s dependent on two groups of potential employers:
The same bad-faith hotel owners who ran the 2003 STD campaign and who are currently calling for increased criminalization of poor people.
The tech firms who pushed for two early 2011 tax breaks and whose investors and CEOs were behind the 2010 anti-homeless sit/lie law.
Second, although day labor can be a crucial source of income for people who aren’t lucky enough to sustain long-term employment, by its very nature, day labor is a day-to-day fix that offers no real solution to poverty in the long term. Even if Zynga and Hanford-Freund & Company are somehow persuaded to hire homeless people in Union Square as one-day code monkeys or full-service real estate pimps, what will they do the following day for work? Will diabetics who can’t afford insulin suddenly stop needing to supply their pharmaceutical “habit”? Will women stop needing tampons until the next time they happen to get day labor? Will parents and children stop needing bus money for the daily ride to and from school? People are going to keep on panhandling as long as they don’t have stained access to reliable work.
This is far from a long-term solution systemically,and instead all about the same old election-season PR scams. With unemployment as high as it is in San Francisco, competition for jobs is extreme. A real solution requires real job creation. If this is really work that Twitter and Hotel Nikko need done, then they should be creating real jobs and helping buoy the economy that is dragging so many of us down.
Mayor Lee has taken a baby step in the right direction. He needs to go much further: We need real jobs—not just day labor—for the poorest San Franciscans. These jobs need to reflect the skills and abilities of the diversity of San Francsicans on the lowest rungs of our economy, and need to pay enough that people no longer need to panhandle. For the elderly, or younger folks whose health prevents them from maintaining regular employment, we need an adequate social safety net that includes subsistence income and decent housing options.The restoration of shelter beds to 2003 levels and an end to the practice of rent-charging for shelter beds might be a good step in the right direction toward helping the disenfranchised, but those services certainly will not be funded by Mayor Lee’s tax cuts for big businesses in the Tenderloin.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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