City's panhandling ordinance ignores the real problem 

Out of Sight

The on-again, off-again hot-button story of the past year has been the "problem" of panhandling inside the city limits of Charleston. The ugly specter of people standing at intersections in and around the Holy City has so horrified the genteel people of the new Southern city of Charleston — that progressive and shining star in a deeply red state — our elected officials look as if they are going to do something about it. The city has a plan and, according to City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, it's the "solution to our problems with panhandling."

But this latest plan by the city is nothing more than a mean-spirited, chicken-shit "solution" that is a complete end run around the actual problem of homelessness that faces people in Charleston.

If you've paid attention to this story over the last few months, you'll recall that the city was recently stymied by a court ruling that sided with the American Civil Liberties Union's contention that panhandling is constitutionally protected free speech. Since the city can no longer legally keep people off the roadways, the next best thing is to just make it impossible for panhandlers to collect money, hence the new ordinance. Introduced by Police Chief Greg Mullen, the ordinance criminalizes the act of passing anything from or into a vehicle on the city's roadways, meaning drivers can no longer give panhandlers (or firemen or anyone else) money, and they cannot accept anything in return — or they face jail time and a fine. Mullen's line is that panhandlers create traffic hazards, although they're apparently not enough of a hazard for there to be any data to report. If anything, Mullen's reasoning is just another terrible attempt at rationalizing an extremely bad measure aimed at making the lives of poor people in the Holy City that much worse.

Last week the ordinance received unanimous support in City Council. This means that not a single member of City Council, not the ones who are "progressives" and might wish to help the homeless nor the "conservatives" who might wish to find cost-effective ways to reduce homelessness, cared to do anything more than protect the Charleston Brand™. Sure this measure might actually be the solution to panhandling, but it does absolutely nothing to address the larger issue.

What it will do, though, is drive homeless people back toward the more socially acceptable forms of charity found at homeless shelters. This is well and good, as no one can argue that homeless shelters are in and of themselves a bad thing. But they too are a poor solution to a problem that, honestly, a city like Charleston — much less a nation like America — should even be facing.

While many towns and cities have opted over the years to get tough on panhandling or homelessness with measures aimed at preventing people from giving out money or food, or even going as far as to make sitting on sidewalks a crime, some communities are taking a more proactive approach. Cities like Madison, Wisc., Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore., are making plans to erect "tiny houses" on public land for the homeless. While it might be easy to dismiss these as "big cities full of liberals," there are also conservative solutions to homelessness that are working.

After all, one would hardly call the state of Utah progressive in any sense of the word. But a 10-year old program there has almost reached its goal of effectively ending homelessness in the state. How does it work? Do they drug-test the participants or force them to sit through church services or lectures? No. They give homeless people an apartment. No questions asked, no hoops to jump through. For Utah, the cost of dealing with the homeless through ER visits and policing far outweighed the cost of an apartment and a social worker. The result is a homeless rate that dropped around 70 percent since the plan went into effect in 2005.

So, the question is, what is holding Charleston back? If it truly is the Holy City, why aren't our elected officials acting like it? If it's a "world-class" city, why aren't they stepping up? Is it just easier to make up "public safety" excuses without data to back up those claims than it is to find an actual solution to the problem? Or is it just that the face-value words of someone like Kathleen Wilson reflect the truth about Charleston, that the city simply doesn't give a damn about the homeless unless they are in the public view and that panhandling is the only problem worth dealing with? If that is the case, Charleston cannot claim either "holy" or "world-class" status.

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