Letter from the Editor

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Begging: Consider the Cause

If Iowans are concerned about

panhandling, there will need to be a better option.

Cities like Storm Lake are usually spared the disturbing sight of hardscrabble poverty. Oh, we know that more than a few people are one paycheck away from homelessness, and some may even not have enough to eat or medicines they need. Once in a great while, a "will work for food" sign is seen along a highway as someone passes through. We are aware that our local food pantry is strained to keep up.

It's one thing to know it, though; another to see it.

Cities like ours do not have people squatting on sidewalks or living in boxes. There's no one in dirty clothes coming up to your car at a stoplight to beg for change.

So it may be hard for us to relate to the discussions taking place among central Iowa city and county officials, where people have started to crop up panhandling at interstate interchanges.

Needless to say, this does not sit well with well-heeled suburbanites in their Lexuses. They are scared by homeless people coming up to their car windows, and they no doubt don't like how they feel when they see people with signs reading "Hungry. Please Help."

It seems Iowa has no law against begging. So when it happens, the reactions of towns can vary widely. In Des Moines, they ignore it unless someone complains, and then send the cops to tell panhandlers to move on. (To where?)

Some towns try to enforce their own ordinances, others will try to vaguely use their laws on soliciting or vendor permit laws to chase the needy away. In some cases, police will seek to use alcohol or littering charges to discourage street people from being in their areas. Years ago, Storm Lake tried to pass a "no sleeping in the parks" proposal to try to keep homeless people away, but have since adopted a reasonable policy of guiding people in dire straights to a Salvation Army assist or some shelter service in a larger city.

Some Iowans are beginning to call for a law against begging for help.

What happens then? We fine homeless people? Really?

Or we chase them away? If they have no vehicle or money, where are they supposed to go? Wouldn't we just be chasing them to a different corner or the next town down the road?

The issue, of course, is how to know someone who really needs help from someone who is using people.

One couple that lives in the woods and commonly begs on Merle Hay Road tells the Des Moines Register that they can make $25 per two hours of begging - enough on a good day to supply their needs and also sometimes go to movies and buy booze.

That's better than a lot of people do working full time.

So are people panhandling because they have no other way to survive - or because it's an easy way for someone too lazy to hold a job to collect beer money? Some of both, it would appear.

One can appreciate the opinion of the residents in towns where this problem is cropping up. They are targeted while stopped at stoplights in high traffic areas. When a stranger comes to their car window, they may be startled, and in effect they are a captive audience. With children in your car, it it easy to see how there can be concern.

Yet the economic realities are becoming alarming. It isn't just the wealthy stock market players who are losing. The same newspaper that made an Iowa section front page story out of the begging problem has in the same week cut over 50 jobs.

It seems odd and otherworldly to look at the map of Merle Hay Road with four "homeless camps" labeled on it. Is this really happening here in Iowa in this day and age? Shanty-towns of helpless, homeless people on the same road that features Iowa's most famous glittery shopping mall?

Officials tearing down "hooches" where homeless people squat - with over 10,000 estimated homeless in Des Moines alone?

An advocate who helped build the shanties said officials "don't give an (expletive) about these people....Shame on the city. Shame on you for ignoring this city's housing crisis. Shame on you for putting these people out in the cold."

We didn't want to hear that, because once we do, it's hard to pretend to ignore the human issues of the economy any longer. Just as he said, we are indeed being shamed.

We know we have to do something. We can't have beggers all over our roads. And we know that passing a law against people panhandling isn't a solution to the situation that put them there to begin with.

Sadly, we hear these officals debating what to do to shoo the poor away, but we didn't see a word in that banner story about anyone making any effort at helping them.

If a city or county is going to ban people from asking for help, or sleeping in the only place they can, they will need to realize that many of these people have no other option and nowhere else to go.

Chasing them away solves nothing. What else can you do? Transportation to a shelter or food kitchen, a Salvation Army assist, a bus ticket to family if they have one, a list of places where jobs may be available? Runaway services? There's no easy or no-cost answer to homelessness.

But one thing is certain. Laws designed only to shoo our neediest people out of sight, where their plight need no longer yank at our consciences. solve nothing.