Goats

J. PETER SABONIS

November 17, 1993|By J. PETER SABONIS

While others throughout the nation struggle to unearth the myriad macroeconomic forces that cause our current and prolonged economic downtown, the downtown Baltimore business community has found its scapegoat: the panhandler.

That's right. That part rogue, part con-artist, part down-on-the-luck, mentally ill, homeless or chronically addicted man or woman who accosts, assails, begs or silently pleads for your spare change, is, according to those in the know, hurting business. And when business hurts, the story goes, we all hurt.

City Council Bill No. 642, which outlaws ''aggressive and other forms of panhandling,'' will stop the hurting. No longer will you be assaulted, touched against your will, harassed, intimidated or subjected to obscenities from panhandlers. And no longer will a panhandler be able to get within 10 feet of an ATM machine, approach a bus stop or step into a street to practice his or her trade.

That practically all aspects of the city bill already are covered by existing state law appears to be irrelevant to many business people and politicians. They are not alone. In Washington, the City Council passed an anti-panhandling bill in June despite cries by the ACLU and others that the targeted behavior was already illegal.

The unnecessary bill will be passed because the business community thinks it will help and because fiscally strapped Baltimore cannot afford to alienate business. Of course, business is right in seeing that increasing numbers of poor people on the street can be harmful to commerce.

What it fails to see is that outlawing the panhandler follows the same faulty premise that created the increasing numbers in the first place: We can shun the poor without cost to ourselves. But ''No man is an island,'' as John Donne wrote, and the bell of increasing poverty does toll, quite visibly, in the form of increasing hordes of panhandlers. The toll they collect from us is less a cause of business decline than an effect of the decline combined with our public policy choices.

For the last three years, the state has tried to balance its budget on the backs of the poor. Public assistance levels have been slashed, medical assistance terminated for 32,000 destitute and disabled Marylanders, substance-abuse treatment services whittled to the bone -- all while real wages declined and temporary or part-time work became the norm for many low-skilled persons.

When making the budget cuts, the governor expressed dismay and predicted increases in crime, institutionalization and the behavior which Bill No. 642 outlaws. The legislature (comfortable in hiding behind the governor), the business community and the majority of us, the ever-tax conscious public, acquiesced, quietly confident that we could avoid the repercussions.

We were wrong. But instead of admitting this and having a debate on restructuring our government revenue so that it meets our continuing needs, we now choose instead through Bill No. 642 to focus on tangential questions: what's the difference between ''homeless'' and ''panhandler?'' How lucrative is panhandling? Is the exploitation of compassion by the ''con-artist'' panhandler more criminal than the exploitation of sex by the pornographer? Is panhandling really ''free speech?''

All of this seems so far from the issues and the forces that prompted me to first set foot in a soup kitchen in 1976, and then to begin work at a homeless shelter in 1982. Like most in the homeless-service sector -- though at that time the sector wasn't large enough to be so designated -- I became involved because of a religious commitment. Sure, there were other forces, but for me it all seemed to come down to Matthew 25:31-46 in the New Testament.

There, the King comes at the end of the world and separates the sheep from the goats, condemning the goats for failing to be compassionate to the King, who all along has been disguised as the ''least'' among them. The sheep, however, a caring lot, are commended because, according to the King, ''I was hungered, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.''

The beauty and truth of the tale, like most scripture, varies according to the interpreter. Yet I've never heard a preacher ask why the disguised King was hungered and naked to begin with. Had he squandered his opportunities? Was he sick because of his own addiction? Naked because he was slothful? In prison because he was a criminal? And if this were the case, why should the goats be condemned for not investing much time and energy in him?

These however, are the questions asked and reasoning used by most of us -- even some in the homeless-service sector -- to deny assistance to the poor, or to condition it on some change in behavior, or to outlaw panhandling. As Dorothy Day, who fed, clothed and housed the homeless for almost 50 years, used to say, ''The greatest burden the poor bear is that of being judged.''

The beauty of the King's tale seems to lie in the fact that the sheep did not pass judgment on the least among them. They saw not only the intrinsic worth of others, regardless of condition, but the intrinsic value in compassion and giving, regardless of the result.

No doubt, many feel the government cannot afford to base its actions on parables. And no doubt, when confronted with individuals and specific situations in our personal lives, many of us act, in fact, like the parable's sheep. But collectively we have a different persona and a different objective. Our policy toward the downtrodden and the poor finds expression in City Council No. 642. We play the goat.

J. Peter Sabonis is legal director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

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