I am bothered by both of these developments. It’s taken me some time to process through why. Aggressive panhandling is not a good thing. Most of my friends experiencing houselessness and poverty from other cities I’ve lived in don’t panhandle and don’t actually like panhandlers. I’m not a proponent of panhandling. But these two developments in my city have deeply bothered me.
Luke will probably post something better informed and to the point than I can. (Also, he will be posting a few things about something related, new, and exciting that we're up to here. So read what I have to say, but there's lots more goodness coming!) But when I realized the heart of my discomfort with this, I wanted to share.
There are really four reasons. The first three, I’ll gloss over because they are addendums to the fourth.
1) Everett doesn’t have much panhandling. (Especially in downtown which is the specific area I understand the ordinance to apply to). We have a lot of houselessness and poverty. But we don’t have a lot of panhandling compared to every other city I’ve been in. (I invite any Everett neighbors to take a field trip to Belltown, Pioneer Square, the International District, the University District, Ballard etc. to verify this. In fact, if there’s enough interest, we’d love to host a field trip with neighbors in Everett wanting to take a look at how Seattleites interact with neighbors in poverty) I can count the times I’ve seen aggressive panhandling in downtown Everett in the last year on one finger. And I spend a good deal of time out in the community. In Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Sacramento, I doubt I could count the incidences of aggressive panhandling I saw in one day on one finger. Everett doesn’t need this ordinance. So it seems like it is just degrading to our neighbors experiencing houselessness and poverty for no good reason. Ok, maybe not no good reason. But certainly not a good enough reason.
2) This sign urges people not to encourage panhandling or enable addictions. And maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but, to me, that “or” establishes an assumption that those who ask neighbors for help on the street are addicts. Some are. More per capita in Everett than other cities I’ve lived in. But many are not. Or they are in recovery and trying to make ends meet. And it is just painful for people already humiliated by need to have signs up that suggest their need is their fault because they are addicts - a sign that subtly invites (on purpose or not) the rest of us to assume this of our neighbors. And, again, maybe “or” does create enough distance between addiction and panhandling to clarify. But I really don’t think it does. At all.
3) I have tremendous respect for the three agencies listed on that sign. Like, Everett doesn’t have a lot of resources for folks experiencing poverty - but those three are stellar! I love them. Deeply! But those three agencies DO NOT meet all the needs of our neighbors in Everett experiencing poverty. More to the point: they do not INTEND to meet all those needs. My educated guess is that, for many of the folks asking for help, if it was as simple as walking up to one of those three agencies and have their needs met, they wouldn’t be asking strangers for money.
4) And this is really the biggest for me, comes from a story:
A little while ago, I went to an ATM machine in downtown Everett to get money out. There was no one on the street except me and a couple of men hanging out at one of the public pianos that were placed all around downtown Everett in the late summer. There’s always a bit of an erie, vulnerable feeling for me when my city appears vacant. And, I’ll admit to added fear as a woman with only two unknown men in the vicinity.
As I stood at the ATM, the two men began panhandling to me. Aggressively. I said “No, I don’t have cash for you.” And they continued: “You could get some out of the ATM.” This was too much. I was angry and I didn’t want to be angry at neighbors in need. I was scared and I didn’t want to be scared of male neighbors. But there I was scared and angry.
So I called back to them with a little edge in my voice: “Look, I am really uncomfortable with you asking me for money while I am at the ATM. I would appreciate if you would leave me alone.” Not my most pastoral words ever. But upon reflection, maybe that was the most loving and therefore most pastoral response.
And guess what: They apologized. Sincerely. Profusely. And they did, in response to my petition, leave me alone.
I didn’t need an ordinance.
I needed to muster the scant courage to name how I was feeling and ask two neighbors to behave differently in response. It was a humanizing encounter for all of us. I, a neighbor, spoke to other neighbors about my experience of them and how they were affecting me. I, a neighbor, established with those neighbors how I would like to be treated. And they were given - and gladly received - the opportunity to behave in a more neighborly way towards me.
Had I called the police to report them in violation of an ordinance, we would have lost all of that. Had I told them: “You know, what you are doing is illegal.” That would have been...okay? I guess? But there is something more human - and therefore more holy - in, instead of appealing to laws, appealing to our shared desire to love and feel safe in the place we live.
If I am never accosted at the ATM in downtown again, I will be glad of it. All the same, this ordinance has taken away more chances for humanizing, direct, honest, neighborly communication between myself and neighbors in need as equals who live and love in this place. And - in addition to the needlessness of the ordinance, the often false connection between poverty and addiction in the signs, and the fact that giving to three agencies won’t solve houselessness and poverty in Everett - this breaks my heart.
And so I pray:
Lord of love, Creator of all people - of me, of the business owners who put up those signs, of the neighbors who aggressively panhandled to me, of neighbors experiencing poverty, mental illness, and addiction,
Have mercy on Everett. Grant us humanizing interactions. Grant us mutual understanding. Lead us in ways of neighborliness. Lead us in your ways of liberation and equality. Bring us into renewed and renewing unity as those who live and love in Everett.
This I pray in the name of your Son who dined with those experiencing wealth and those experiencing poverty at one common table. May we, the daughters and sons of You and of Everett, do the same.