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Sunday, December 3

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The Mechanics
« Don't emulate Illinois... Burked »

Chicago Tue Jun 30 2009

Panhandling is (Not) a Crime

I visited my favorite (slightly overpriced) bakery in Hyde Park yesterday. The bakery had a white 8.5"x11" sign on the door that usually portends some sort of neighborhood crime alert, which it did. Surprisingly, the sign was not about a rash of burglaries or strong-arm robberies, but rather to alert us to the fact that panhandling is a crime and that we should call 911 if we witness it happening.

I left the bakery quite conflicted as I chewed on some flaky, buttery, chocolaty goodness. On the one hand, that stretch of 57th Street, while nowhere near the panhandling obstacle course other stretches of real estate in Chicago can be (I love working downtown during the Taste of Chicago, don't you?), it is still, or at least was, home to a couple of pretty aggressive men scamming for change. They were generally less annoying or vaguely threatening as the gentlemen who pull you aside and tell you their life story, but still it was always important to not make eye contact or at least whip out your cell phone while walking that block, a strategy which doesn't seem to work with the Environment Illinois folks, incidentally. There is something to be said for just being able to walk down the street on a nice summer day and not have to be made to feel guilty for not having some spare change.

On the other hand, is annoying people on the street really a crime? At some point, yes, some professional panhandlers can get aggressive and down right scary, but if we make panhandling a crime in general, then what other options do those folks have? Should they just "get a job," should we foist them off on an already overburdened social welfare system, should we lock them up in some sort of modern-day debtors-prison? I suspect that part of the annoyance that panhandlers bring for a lot of us is the ambiguous moral and ethical position they put us in every time we walk by them. I know I am privileged to live in a nice neighborhood and suckle at the teat of the social welfare system of the university. I know that families, men and women live all around me who can't say the same, who have to bust their humps and hustle just for a Polish and a pop, I just wish they wouldn't intrude on my world to do so. And so I am left with, much like I imagine most of us are, no overwhelming set of principles to guide every action, just the ambiguity of every individual experience with panhandling demanding a different reaction.

Maybe I should just see it as a character-building exercise. The persistence of the urban poverty and inequality that leaves so many with no (perceived or real) option other than to beg for charity outside bakeries in the bright light districts is only matched by our efforts to put that poverty and inequality on reservations as far away from our imagined communities of prosperity as possible. Maybe it's an advantage of city living to have to deal with it. Or maybe I should just not carry cash and always have an excuse.

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