The city seems poised for one of its periodic bouts of hand-wringing about the homeless. Understand that most of the hand-wringing has little to do with the plight of the homeless themselves. It's more about the discomfort of those who must see and encounter the homeless downtown.
I don't have a bright idea. I think some of the homeless can be helped. See Our House. I think some can't be helped. Or don't want to be helped. I'm surely skeptical about passing laws to cure pathologies. No more 22-ounce bottles before 8 a.m. will stop alcoholics from drinking? Tickets will stop panhandlers? Limiting charitable food distribution to the homeless will do what?" Besides make Little Rock a meaner place than it already is.
These musings are prompted by two letters. One is from Dot Robbins, who's long worked with the homeless and wants to reach out for more humane solutions than punitive ordinances. Another is from Robert Johnston, another long-time volunteer in homeless feeding efforts, who wants to respond to a D-G editorial on the subject today. I give them space.
FROM DOT ROBBINS
It would be wonderful if you could help us cover an article on homeless in LR/NLR....There are big problems on the horizon.....However, I, and many like me, work with the homeless every day to try and find solutions
I believe that if the many people at the City Government level would take the time to speak with us, we could find appropriate solutions for this problem. It is sad to see reports of people who simply want to disenfranchise the homeless from the core of Little Rock, by means that will not work in general...short term, cruel measures of a legal nature to get the homeless pushed out from the outdoor feeding areas, for example/
In reality, I am not against that....if others, especially business owners, would be willing to sit down and have honest discussions of how they could also help with the overall problem, which saddens all of us....not just business owners in downtown Little Rock, it would be incredible. To date, no businesses, lawyers, etc. in downtown Little Rock have tried to contact many of us working with the homeless.
The SOAR (Street Outreach, Access, and Recovery) Homeless Network will be presenting a workshop on how to help the homeless. It will take place on Sept. 18th (9:00-12:30) at the Willie Hinton Center. You see, we are trying to help with real solutions to the homeless problems. Some City officials, unfortunately, are trying to push the problem away, with threats.The results will not be positive, because threats are threatening, causing emotional responses, and much drama. I have only been working with the homeless issue in LR/NLR for over a year now. But, I am amazed that the business community, the Chamber of Commerce, the City Board of Directors, etc., have not tried to partner with some of us on the streets helping the homeless, to start a mutual dialogue of how all can help solve this problem. Now, I truly believe that if we could get City leaders, including businesses, and the faith-based community, to sit down and talk and listen to each other, we could solve many problems....I even dream that LR/NLR could be a Best Practices Community in this area.
What I am watching in the Press is very “depressing.” We are experiencing very primitive tactics in place right now, with no offers of dialogue, discussion, help from those who are attacking. It is very sad for me. And, the results will not be positive, you can be sure. I am hoping the Arkansas Times can perhaps be a voice for mediation.
SOAR (Street Outreach, Access, and Recovery) Network for the Homeless
FROM ROBERT JOHNSTON
What follows is today's Democrat-Gazette editorial. My comments are in ALL CAPS.
SEVERAL years back, panhandling in downtown Little Rock was a real problem. We remember being followed into a sandwich shop, and having the panhandler stand in line behind us begging for a sandwich. Whispering in our ear. Avoiding eye contact with the employees, lest he get thrown out of the place. At least he wasn’t begging for money, so we obliged. But to have somebody follow you into a shop and stand right behind you begging . . . well, that was a new one. SAME THING HAPPENED TO ME AT 4TH AND MAIN; PROBABLY THE SAME LUNCH SPOT
Then the little orange boxes went up around downtown with their admonitions not to give to panhandlers. We were all supposed to put our loose change in the boxes. Better to pool our coins and give the money to various agencies that actually helped the down-and-out. MAYBE?/ SOMEDAY?/ A %? (And, as an extra-added bonus, zero percent of the money would go to booze). SAME % WHEN YOU GIVE FOOD DIRECTLY That was the idea, anyway.
Flash forward several years. Panhandling has noticeably decreased.
….. There are times when some of us who work downtown can go almost a week without somebody hitting us up. But the problem hasn’t gone away, either. Not when just a month ago a fellow we know was threatened with a broken neck by a spurned beggar. REGRETTABLE 1. DID HE CALL COPS? I HAVE 2. IN OUR SOCIETY/ WORLD THERE ARE 2% OR SO OF ANY GROUP THAT ARE BADDIES. DO WE COLLECTIVELY PUNISH THE OTHER 98% FOR THE BAD 2%?
So once again the folks at city hall are putting together some ideas they hope will help. Lawyers for the city are drawing up ordinances that target aggressive panhandlers. If the city directors agree, beggars could be ticketed for following people around, or making them feel threatened. By, for example, promising to break their necks.
Another ordinance would require organizations that feed large groups of people in city parks to get permits-and they’d only be allowed to do it twice a year. MAYBE THE ORDINANCE WILL PROHIBIT THE HOMELESS FROM EATING MORE THAN TWICE A YEAR. WASN’T THERE ONCE SOMEONE WHO SAID THE LAW TREATS THE RICH AND THE POOR ALIKE — PERMITS THEM TO SLEEP UNDER THE BRIDGES’? [EXCEPT IN LITTLE ROCK THEY CAN’T SLEEP UNDER THE BRIDGES. AND PERHAPS NOT EAT UNDER THE BROADWAY BRIDGE]
Another would keep liquor stores from selling alcohol in small, single-serving bottles.
Whether either of those last two ideas would help, or if we really want to tell folks to limit their charity to twice a year, well, our response to those proposals has not yet matured. AMEN. HOW ABOUT A PERMIT TO FEED 365 DAYS A YEAR/ OR ONCE A WEEK FOR 52 WEEKS Nor is it clear that either proposal (a) will be adopted, or (b) would prove possible or practical to enforce. According to our news story, the folks at Alcoholic Beverage Control say a city doesn’t have the authority to tell liquor stores they can’t sell somebody an individual can of Bud. Another thought occurs: Do we really want to encourage the derelicts wandering around downtown to buy their booze by the gallon, or in those big, double-fisted containers?
As far as keeping good-hearted people from feeding the homeless in city parks, that proposal seems aimed at those who feed the homeless near the Broadway Street bridge, bless them every one. May their tribe increase. THANK YOU But may their tribe increase somewhere indoors, not in a city park. LIKE THE CITY HALL GARAGE? LIKE THE ROTUNDA OF CITY HALL? [ THIS LAST WAS SUGGESTED BY A NICE CATHOLIC WOMAN WHO FEEDS THE HOMELESS ONCE A WEEK ] Businesses up and down Broadway say that after the food is served, some of the homeless stick around to bother their customers. DO THE HOMELESS BOTHER THEIR CUSTOMERS MORE AFTER THEY ARE FED?
Nobody wants to be hard-hearted, but WE WILL IF SOME FOLKS ARE ‘UNCOMFORTABLE’ lest we forget, those businesses pay taxes and see to the needs of folks who require their goods and services. AS DO THE CITIZENS WHO VOLUNTEER THEIR TIME AND MONEY TO FEED THE NEEDY AND GO TO THE CHURCHES THAT FEED They’ve got enough problems without panhandlers standing out front, driving away their customers. MOST BUSINESS FIGURE WAYS TO HANDLE PROBLEMS SUCH AS THIS.
Of all these ideas, the first one the city directors should consider, and approve, is the one that would allow police to ticket aggressive panhandlers. YES/ NO PROBLEM The other ideas may still need some seasoning, some debate, some thought, some compromises. YES! But ticketing panhandlers who follow folks up and down Main or Scott or Louisiana, making people who work downtown uncomfortable! MANY PEOPLE IN MANY WALKS OF LIFE ARE ‘UNCOMFORTABLE’ EACH AND EVERY DAY. THE U.S. IS A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY WITH CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS or just plain scaring them, would seem a good first step. SCARING IS DIFFERENT. PERHAPS A WALKING BEAT COP OR A BIKE COP ON MAIN, ETC. WOULD HELP? Lest even more folks start avoiding downtown for fear of encountering a beggar who does more than beg but rails and rants and follows and intimidates-and even threatens to break somebody’s neck. THIS IS NOT ONE BAD APPLE SPOILING THE BARREL. THIS IS BLOWING UP ONE INCIDENT INTO A DRACONIAN ATTACK ON POOR, NEEDY, DOWN-ON-THEIR-LUCK CITIZENS.