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"City of churches" to consider legal action against begging

Tonight, the City Commission will be considering an adjustment to city laws that could put great restraints, once again, on panhandling.

/Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

What if panhandling wasn't regulated?

  • What if instead of needing everyone needing to be "fixed" we decided it was more important that everyone needed a friend?
  • What if instead of needing to be their savior, we were willing to be one small part in a chain of people involved in helping someone?
  • What if instead of worrying about what other people deserved we spent more time worrying about what we could give to other people?
  • What if we decided it was more important to cultivate a city where person-to-person giving was encouraged rather than to create a city where it becomes harder for those who need to give to find those in need?
  • What if we decided it was more important to allow the weak and needy to speak their stories than it was to shield those stories from the middle class and wealthy?
  • What if we worried more about being generous and less about being duped?
  • What if we worried more about their comfort than our own?
  • And what if this “city of churches” remembered that we are all beggars before God?  That we all get good things we don’t deserve?  That we all live on the gifts that He gives?
  • What if we remembered that the children of Israel may not have “deserved” free food while they were wandering in the wilderness, but that God sent them manna from Heaven everyday anyway?
  • And what if we remembered that Jesus repeatedly told us to give but never told anyone not to beg?

/Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Grand Rapids City Commissioners will be meeting tonight, Tuesday, May 20, to discuss a proposal intended to put great restraints on panhandling. It wasn't too long ago that we removed laws against begging in our city, and the Federal Court has ruled as well that panhandling is a First Amendment right. I didn't think Grand Rapids would try these shenanigans again.

We are and have been called “a city of churches.” This city of churches wants to stop panhandlers.

It is not a crime to be poor.

It should not be a crime to beg.

For a city of churches who purport to follow the homeless preacher, Jesus, it should be our great privilege to care for the poor.

If seeing poor people begging at the side of the road offends or worries us, we are offended or worried about the wrong things.

What if Grand Rapids could be known as a city where someone who was begging not only got a sandwich, but got a friend?

I have personal experience with this issue. I befriended a woman panhandling outside of my Family Fare in Grand Rapids. She'd taken the bus in from Walker so that she could beg. She had been kicked out of her living arrangement with nowhere else to go, so she was trying to raise money for that night's motel room.

I drove her down to a Christian organization that used to take in women off the street. I was told they no longer did this and that we should head over to the Salvation Army. My friend immediately turned away in tears. I approached the desk and got more information out of the woman who sent me around the corner to the day shelter to speak with their community advocate. She also told us the same thing. So I'm not really sure why we were sent there.

I remember wondering why they paid more attention to me than my friend. I'm more articulate and wasn't in tears, but I also wasn't at the end of my rope. Isn't it their job to help people at the end of their rope? Shouldn't they be treating her with the same respect they were treating me? And if I wasn’t there to keep driving her to different shelters, how did they expect this woman with no money and no car to get all over town?

Degage was out because she had a kid. The domestic violence centers were out because she was not fleeing a domestic violence situation. The Salvation Army was out because they were closed. Yes, that's right, closed. Don't go homeless in Grand Rapids after hours or on the weekends. People will say that this isn’t true, but we called repeatedly and were told to call back first thing the next morning, or first thing on Monday.

So she ended up staying with us for the weekend. Later she came back and stayed for a couple weeks. We ended up opening our home to her and her son for six months to help her get back on her feet. Neither of us did everything perfectly. It didn't end perfectly. But it was good and we love her like family now. She's further in her journey than she was, and through us, knows a lot more people both personally and inside ministries that care for her, know her story and are ready to help her.

I would never have met her to know she needed help had she not been panhandling.

One of the main things that we need to consider when we see someone begging for money beside the road is that more than anything, it's a lack of good relationships, not just money, that keeps them in need.

If a cry for financial help is what it takes for us to get to know them, why not? Most people have fallen into some kind of financial difficulty at some time or another, but we have relationships and systems to help us out. Living with parents or other relatives, couch-surfing at friends homes, borrowing money, having the education and ability to get a credit card.

What if you're mentally ill, you come from an unstable family, and don't have the education or skills to get and maintain a credit card. What then?

Instead of being offended that people are asking for money, we should be offended that more of us don't do a better job at befriending and helping our neighbors.

You might not be able to help every beggar on the street, but you could befriend one or two.

We need all the ministries and programs and outreaches. We also need individuals who care and can take someone under their wing. We need to be people who reach out in personal ways to help another human being. People who are begging need people who care about them as individuals. Like all of us, they need conversation, hugs, eye contact, jokes and a listening ear.

When we relegate all giving to institutions, no matter how good, we lose the heart of where community starts: with personal giving. When we regulate poverty instead of alleviate it, we encourage impersonal systems rather than personal generosity.

It is not a question of whether individuals or institutions, ministries and government organizations are better at helping people. All are needed. 

For a “city of churches,” those of us who attend those churches need to remember what our pastors often note: that the church is the people and not the building.

As citizens of a democratic society, we all need to remember that the Federal Court says we the people have a first amendment right to beg. It's time we the people who make the church and we the people who beg got together rather than trying to make more laws that will keep us apart.

What if we became a city that encouraged more of its citizens to reach out not only a helping hand, but a hand in friendship? What if we Grand Rapidians took it upon ourselves to befriend someone who is begging rather than judge?

What if we decided that the messy and hard work that comes with helping each other is better than cultivating suspicious and hard hearts that come with ignoring each other?

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I applaud you, Elizabeth, for taking the time to take a personal interest in this woman and to make sure she had a place to stay.  We should all challenge our own responses or lack of responses to beggars.  Putting it on churches is probably an easy out unless you are talking about changing your own church.  Giving money is likely to foster drug or alcohol abuse rather than help the person get on their feet.   The last 3 people I've offered rides, food, or other specific help declined it,  because it was not cash.   I personally try to keep Degage Dollars on hand to give instead of cash.  I know this falls far short of the help that many need.  We also accept people to our clinic at Community Medicine Clinic for medical help, counseling, and problem solving with regard to housing, employment.