Spare Change: Are We Making Too Big a Deal Over Panhandling?

A few weeks ago I read a post on a local Internet forum that touched on a familiar theme. It seems a woman and her friend had attended some of the Dogwood Arts festivities and were returning to their car on the southern edge of downtown when they encountered a young woman carrying a "tire tool" who claimed she had a flat and asked for some help. According to the author, they inquired as to what kind of help, and the woman said "a few dollars." They declined, and that was that.

I didn't get the impression that the solicitor had threatened them with the implement and it seems everybody went their own way afterward.  But the poster mentioned that she had encountered other folks that day that "looked down on their luck." She didn't mention any of them asking her for anything, but declared that she wouldn't be "back downtown anytime soon" and cautioned readers to "be careful out there." I don't want to seem too dismissive. The author of the post had been mugged near the University of Tennessee campus a few years ago and I'm sure that contributes to her wariness. But I did cringe at hearing that caution about downtown, especially over something so benign.

When I hear about warnings like that, I often think that people make too big of a deal about panhandling downtown. Not that it doesn't exist. It does. But if you visit virtually any urban center in the world, you're likely to encounter someone asking for a handout. It's simply part of the urban environment, like parking meters or sidewalk cafes. It's been that way since the beginning of recorded history, and almost by nature, an integral part of the life of cities of any size everywhere for as long as there have been cities. Whether you think the activity is right or wrong is really sort of academic. We live in a society where we're allowed to ask a stranger for help. I wouldn't want to live in one where you couldn't. About the only thing we can really complain about is how they go about it.

Knoxville, along with a host of other cities across the nation, took a stab at making that distinction with its ordinance against "aggressive panhandling." Passed in 2006, the law distinguishes certain activities that cross the line. Some of it is pretty black and white. Panhandlers, for example, aren't allowed to touch the people they're soliciting. It includes prohibitions on times and places. But much of what is woven into the ordinance makes reference to an old legal concept: Solicitors are forbidden from numerous activities that would induce fear in a "reasonable person."

But just what constitutes reasonable? As someone who lives in downtown and spends a fair amount of time on foot, I do know that it wouldn't be very reasonable of me to think that I'm not going to get hit up for change on a regular basis. If you visit downtown and think you're going to be immune to the same thing, I'm not sure how reasonable that is. And if someone simply asking you for something puts you in fear, I'm not sure that's all that's altogether reasonable either.

Panhandling is a two-way street. And if people didn't pony up handouts, it's a good bet that the activity wouldn't be as popular as it is. So rather than imagining that the city can somehow make a phenomenon go away that's been with us forever, a reasonable person might be better off to simply expect it, and be prepared to deal with it. I'm not suggesting that anyone should put up with being threatened, harassed, or intimidated. But no one expects you to pay panhandlers either, except panhandlers.

Let me pass along a short script I've used for the past several years. When someone asks you for that last 43 cents they need to get a cup of coffee, or the couple of bucks so they can get something to eat, or claim to have a flat and need a few dollars, just say "good luck" and keep moving. If it goes beyond that, by all means head for the nearest business or contact the police. But don't fear downtown just because you may be asked for something by a stranger.

Another thing to bear in mind is that same person who pitched you a ploy has probably been practicing their lines day in and day out, week after week, some of them for years. That's because it works. You just need to practice yours and use it when needed. That works, too. And it's reasonable to expect that you're going to have an opportunity to use it sooner or later if you visit downtown. More reasonable than thinking you shouldn't have to, anyway.