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Regulating begging is still bad solution to poverty, public safety concerns

Being poor should not be a crime. Banning panhandling for any amount of time criminalizes poverty and encourage police officers to hassle the poor and homeless.
Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids /Steve Depolo

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I work at The Rapidian now and have for about three years, but before I was a staff member, I was a community journalist. The second article I wrote on The Rapidian was an opinion piece detailing why I thought banning panhandling was a terrible idea for a city of churches since Christians are exhorted to be generous to the poor, not ban their begging.

On Tuesday, December 12, 2017 the Grand Rapids City Commission is again considering passing a restriction on panhandling in the city of Grand Rapids.

Previously, the City lost a lawsuit in 2012 for banning panhandling and arresting panhandlers, and in a split-vote in 2014 decided not to restrict panhandling due to objections from citizens over care for the poor and First Amendment right concerns.

I reread that article today for the first time in three years and was dismayed to see how little has changed in our city. Besides another proposal to regulate begging being tried again, our city still does not sufficiently care for its poorer residents. In 2014 I talked about befriending a woman who was panhandling and my fruitless search to find her somewhere to stay for the night despite our numerous non-profits in this city. Two weeks ago at our church’s community supper, I talked with a father who’s currently sleeping in his car while his children stay with a friend because the various missions keep directing him to the Salvation Army and the Salvation Army keeps telling him to call back.

Regulating when and where people panhandle is still a bad idea. Banning begging, even for only certain hours is still a bad look for a city purportedly full of religious people who supposedly care for the poor. Every major religion in the world encourages some type of almsgiving. Why would a city of churches ban it, even for a couple hours?

Being poor should not be a crime. Banning panhandling for any amount of time criminalizes poverty and encourage police officers to hassle the poor and homeless.

News reports indicate this round of regulating panhandling is being done in concern for “public safety.” But if we were really looking to regulate safety, we’d work on our street harassment laws, not focus on panhandlers.

Not only is Grand Rapids still struggling to properly care for all of its residences and again looking to regulate the begging of our most poor neighbors, it is doing so in an era of heightened awareness around police brutality towards marginalized groups including Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, the disabled, the homeless, and the poor.

Just this week the Grand Rapids Police Department is being heavily criticized for handcuffing an 11 year old girl. In the past few years the GRPD has drawn a taser on three children in Martin Luther King Park, drawn a gun on five boys, and beaten a 15 year old  boy

All of them have been Black children.

The GRPD also been proven to pull over Black motorists twice as often as white people. And just this year GRPD officers tried to hide the intoxication of former Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Joshua Kuiper.

But in the midst of all this, Commissioner David Shaffer wants to give the police even more authority to harass people on the street? The Grand Rapids Police Department is not policing us justly now, why would we give them more power?

Moreover, four violations of this ordinance would be a misdemeanor crime with a fine of up to $500 and/or 90 days jail time.

So we’re going to charge people who are begging $500 for panhandling four times in the wrong place at the wrong time? How does that make any sense? Worse still, we’re going to put someone in jail for three months because they were in such dire straits, they begged on the wrong corner four times?

Our city could do so much better by each other than tackling problems by over-policing each other into debt and jail. Panhandling is a symptom of so many other issues and the problem with panhandling isn’t the begging. We’re letting our neighbors beg rather than fix the systems and issues that lead them to that point and that is the real problem.

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