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Beggars and choosers

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Panhandlers, if not aggressive, don't offend me. Although I rarely give them money, I will buy them a cup of coffee, lunch or a small bag of groceries. And on the whole, I prefer them to mainstream Slick Willies who try to come between me and my money: telemarketers, politicians, casinos, the N.C. Education Lottery, televangelists and Jehovah's Witnesses. (OK, they don't want my money as much as they want my soul.)

Panhandlers elicit reactions ranging from empathy to intimidation to disgust. These emotions lie at the heart of a rigorous debate that earlier this week prompted Durham County Commissioners to vote 4-1 to prohibit panhandling countywide, except within city limits.

True, begging on the road or median is dangerous for driver and panhandler. And I'm glad commissioners were fair enough to ban other roadside distractions: dubious nonprofits and their plastic buckets, firefighters and their gaping rubber boots, even newspaper vendors and their stack of today's headlines.

But the subtext of this issue is that panhandling makes communities look bad. The supposed business downturn on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill has been laid not on the outrageously high rents and sagging economy, but at the feet of panhandlers; their presence became an election issue last fall. The Durham City Council hasn't banned the practice, but limits begging to the daytime and requires, ironically, panhandlers to buy a $20 permit, the money for which probably comes from panhandling. In Raleigh, where state legislators can blithely stroll by beggars on Fayetteville Street, the ordinance requires panhandlers to obtain a free permit, bans them from roads and ATMs, and also prohibits asking for a handout after dark, unless, of course, you're a politician hosting a $100-a-plate fundraiser.

Quoted in The News & Observer, Durham Commissioner Lewis Cheek spoke the most honestly: "I do think what it says about Durham, North Carolina, is that we don't care enough about them to do something."

Banning panhandling is easier than allocating sufficient social services funds and developing compassionate public policy to help and treat people who seek handouts on the street. And if the county commission, or any government body, is going to enact the former, than it has the responsibility to do the latter.

Otherwise, these bans are strictly to keep up appearances, a foil to shield ourselves from the naked reality that panhandling is among dozens of social problems we don't know how—or don't want—to solve.

Walking a gauntlet of outstretched hands may be daunting, but the "compassionate conservatism" dominating America has created a society in which it's every person for himself or herself. The panhandlers are merely looking out for No. 1, just like you and me.

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