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Shawn Vestal: No reason to prohibit panhandling

Are we really going to outlaw street-corner begging in Spokane and pretend it’s about safety?

Or are the politicians who represent the homeless, the downtrodden, the drunk and disorderly, the mentally ill, the desperate, the unsavory – are the politicians who represent that population going to stick up for their right to simply stand in a public place in a free country and ask the rest of us for money?

Never mind.

As the City Council takes up a new ordinance meant to drive the riff-raff out of sight, an uncomfortable truth has popped up: If the riff-raff can’t panhandle from drivers, then neither can charitable organizations.

This means, for example, that the Guilds’ School, a nonprofit organization that helps children with disabilities from birth to age 3, is threatened with losing its annual Penny Drive. The annual firefighters’ “Fill the Boot” campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association would be banned. Supporters of these events are badgering the City Council, hoping it can find a way to preserve these events through some form of permitting.

With respect to these organizations, though, that approach would be backward. The Guilds’ School should be free to ask for and accept money from motorists. And so should panhandlers.

City Councilman Mike Allen is proposing changes to a city ordinance that would make it illegal for panhandlers to enter the roadway at major intersections and entryways. It would mean that, technically, a person can stand there and hold a sign, but the moment they reach into the roadway to accept a quarter, they’re breaking the law.

Allen says it’s a safety issue, along with a quality-of-life matter.

“My hope is we help improve public safety, we help clean up our gateways and we help get people into the programs that help them and not enable them,” he said.

You get the sense, though, that the safety question is a lot less urgent than something that’s harder to say outright: It’s uncomfortable for us, the air-conditioned bourgeoisie, to be forced to look so directly at poverty. Especially poverty that doesn’t know any better than to stick itself in our faces. Especially poverty that’s impure – drunken, druggy, shaggy, irresponsible, unvirtuous – and refuses to decamp to its assigned location.

So icky. Those people should just stay where they belong, away from businesses and tourists and decent folk, in the neighborhoods where the high-octane beer is still available.

One place we don’t want them, apparently, is the lovely entrances to the city. I’m sure the presence of beggars doesn’t do much for the ambience at the Division and Lincoln exits, but let’s face it: Their absence isn’t going to do all that much, either.

The truth is, this ordinance would be sailing through if it weren’t for the fact that it was catching some other tails in the door. Because as much as city officials would like to provide a loophole for the Guilds’ School, it’s tough finding a way to pass constitutional muster when sorting through the various forms of street-corner fundraising.

This little catch is a big catch. Every year for the past 16, the Guilds’ School foundation and its volunteers have taken to the streets of Spokane for the Penny Drive. Volunteers extend long-handled coin catchers into the street – crossing that vertical plane – to gather donations. Since it began, the drive has raised $2.7 million to support the foundation that supports the school.

Allen said he and others are trying to find alternatives for the Penny Drive, but he’s also committed to the ordinance. He notes that the Community Assembly – an advisory board made up of members of neighborhood councils – has already voted to support the ordinance, even without a permitting loophole for the Guilds’ School.

For some, clearly, the scourge of street-corner panhandling is such that the Guilds’ School may just have to pay that price.

School officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to organize supporters to petition the council.

“We just want to do our Penny Drive,” said Dick Boysen, executive director of the school. “We don’t want to go to law school.”

The Penny Drive is crucial for a crucial organization. Panhandling is a nuisance. If I ran a little boutique, selling soaps and cheeses there at the Division off-ramp by Dick’s, I probably wouldn’t want panhandlers scuffing up my scene, either. But whenever the business and political classes team up against street people, it’s such an outrageously unfair fight that it feels like bullying. And the stakes for those of us sitting in our cars are so much lower than the stakes for people who have chosen to beg for money. Is it really such a burden to say no?

Everyone says they’re trying to find a way to save the Penny Drive. We already have a perfectly good way.

Let people who want or need money – for a school or a disease or a forty – ask for it. And let motorists decide whether to give it to them.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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