The One-Year Plan to End Panhandling

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath describes the plight of the Joad family uprooted from their home during the dustbowl years and the trials they faced as transient homeless in America. Spend any time on the street downtown and you'll find that Knoxville has no shortage of people who could put Steinbeck to shame when it comes to spinning tales of misfortune.

Whether it's the veteran just returned from Iraq seeking bus fare to the local VA clinic, the woman whose absent starving child is in need of special feeding formula (the poor thing is allergic to the most common varieties), or the stranded motorist en route to his father's deathbed whose failed alternator has him stuck in Knoxville, we have no shortage of seemingly good people in desperate situations that make the Joads look like a bunch of hippies tooling their way to a show in Monterey.

Last year, my wife and I journeyed to Southeast Asia to visit expat friends. I watched a polio victim drag his way along the floor of a fish market, pushing a cart in front, a boombox and a cup for coins on top. In Cambodia, children missing limbs from playing too close to a minefield rubbed their bellies and begged for my pizza crusts. Those things are a sharp contrast to a fat guy in a parka standing outside J's Megamart hitting me up for bus fare. In short, begging and panhandling are pretty easy to distinguish from one another. Beggars don't lie.

Before downtown's streets came back to life, it seemed that that every other person I'd meet was looking for a handout. That's changed now. It's not that they've gone away. But with the influx of residents and visitors it's not every other person anymore. However, downtown's newfound popularity also means that there are more people for the panhandlers to target. And thus, there are probably as many, if not more, instances of it.

One of the common assumptions is that the street people downtown and Knoxville's homeless population are one and the same. And no doubt a lot of our panhandlers are homeless. But homelessness isn't something that can be addressed by a handout.

The city's 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, begun a couple of years ago, is taking an organized approach to helping people work their way out of their circumstances and back into society. There is a wealth of services in and around downtown that can provide for basic needs like food, shelter, or medical care. And according to those heading the effort, this approach is having an impact.

But those services aren't of any use to someone seeking cash. None of them hand out a few dollars, spare change, or the eighty-six cents that our solicitors are looking for. There's a difference between providing help and giving money.

I'm pleased our community has set a course for helping folks in real need. Coordinating services, eliminating redundancy, and focusing on effective strategies are honorable efforts by our agencies to address homelessness. But if we're going to deal with panhandling, it's going to take a more grassroots approach.

Therefore I'm proposing the One-Year Plan to End Panhandling. The next time someone asks for cash, say no. It's that simple. Then take everything you would have handed out and give it to one of the agencies dedicated to helping the homeless. Give it about a year, and I'll bet we can make an impact.

As a public service, let me offer the following as a sample script to use the next time you get the elaborate story that inevitably precedes the plea for money:

"I am neither trained, nor qualified, to help you with your problem.

You're fortunate, however, to be in Knoxville. We are very proud to have a broad range of public services to assist you."

Then point them to any of our relief organizations. If you are unfamiliar with these, offer to contact a police officer for help. People in real need will thank you.

Every time we reward someone for giving us a spiel, we encourage that behavior. And humans aren't really any different from any other animal when it comes to that kind of learning. Once conditioned, aggression and intimidation result when expectations aren't met. And that's one thing that's changing about the situation downtown. Our generous nature has had the unintended consequence of fostering aggression in our panhandlers.

So let's give it a year and see what happens. Save your spare change for our street musicians. They're not lying to you. Or direct it to the agencies best suited to help the needy. Knoxvillians' generosity has been turned against us, and we're being played for suckers. If you don't like being panhandled, then stop paying people to do it.