Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Panhandling is a First Amendment Right?

Repeatedly it has been decided by the court system that begging is a First Amendment right (the right to free speech). Obviously this seems a bit ludicrous, but in order to make it more palatable, cities have fought back with anti-aggression laws: Beggars can't be physically aggressive or hound someone repeatedly for a hand-out. Some cities have also restricted begging to certain areas of the city and the courts have upheld this restriction.

Here in St. Petersburg (part of our Tampa Bay Area) we have panhandling out of control. They stand on street corners, asking for money that will promptly go to drugs or booze. Their hand-lettered cardboard signs are created to generate sympathy. They are almost NEVER true. The "WILL WORK FOR FOOD" signs have fallen out of favor because people have actually asked them to... er... work, which wasn't part of the plan. Sometimes they claim they're a veteran but they usually aren't.

I don't know how experiences are outside of the Bay Area, but over the years we've had some very nasty cases involving panhandlers. One asked a woman for money, and when she rolled down her car window to hand him a dollar, he stabbed her through the hand with a used needle. They never found the panhandler and the story was lost after the initial report, so I don't know if she contracted anything like AIDS or Hep C from it.

Another panhandler would stand on the street corner and was known as a regular beggar. At night, he would go to the local YMCA, shower and change into a business suit, and go home to his wife and his mansion which had been purchased from his begging proceeds (which were tax-free). His wife knew nothing of the scam until the police came knocking. I understand that this is not uncommon.

Of course there are those that are genuinely needy, but they are the ones that seek help from organizations that can give them meals and shelter. I understand that shelters are strapped for space and can't accomodate every beggar out there, but (as a city councilman in Clearwater privately told me) the cities don't necessarily want to expand their shelters for "if you build it, they will come".

In fact, studies repeatedly show that the kindest love is tough love. If you make it difficult for a beggar to exist in a city they sometimes move on to the next city of suckers, but sometimes they will give up and do the right thing; buckle down, give up the addictions, and become a working member of society once more.

Currently St. Petersburg is considering passing tougher panhandling laws. I say, it's about time!


Hans said...

I'm not particularly sympathetic to the panhandlers. I'm far from being an expert on the homeless problem but I believe that those that really want help have avenues for finding it. There are strings attached like no drinking or drugs. It's much easier to stand on the side of the road looking as pathetic as they possible can to play on the sympathies of passing motorist. You are dead on with the kindest love being tough love.

The Lazy Iguana said...

I do not give money to people standing around. At all. This includes but is not limited to:

homeless people, people acting homeless, people selling shit, kids fund raising for something, nuns, missionaries, fireman with boots, and so on. Nobody gets squat. I do not want any AC to leak out so I do not lower the windows. I even got Sunpass so I can pay highway tolls without looking any AC.

If everyone does this, then nobody will get money by panhandling. Therefore it will end.

One day a kid is going to get pancaked in the process of collecting money for whatever they are out there collecting for. When that happens - there will be no blood on my hands as I never supported the activity by giving them money in the first place.

Roads are for cars - NOT a place to conduct business. I do not want to buy a newspaper, candy, water, flowers, produce, shrimp, fish, or anything else from the roadside. If I want something I stop at a STORE and buy it. Stores pay taxes that go to maintain the roads. Street vendors do not.

The cops need to get those people OFF MY ROADS and OUT OF MY WAY. Begging may be covered by the first amendment - OK I can deal with that - but not while standing in the road. It is a public safety hazard.

Kathleen said...

Saur, as you know this is a problem that is increasing daily in the Bay Area. I have been confronted in fast food drive-thrus, going into stores, coming out of stores, on the roads and in my neighborhood. I am also very worried about the latest "city solution" to the homeless tent debachel in St. Pete. This little gem has us spending lots more of our tax dollars to build, man and maintain more shelter space for the homeless! I wonder if they are planning on using tourisim dollars to help fund it since we will be inviting more of this nations homeless to "come on down" our community. Idiots!!!

The Lazy Iguana said...

I say Florida offer each homeless person $100 and free bum wine for a year if they move to Southern California :)

Mr. Grey Ghost said...

Panhandling is a huge problem out here in NYC too and its legal for the same reason: free speech. Which I totally dont get. I rarely give beggars money and some of them can be very rude if you dont give em money, much less the stench they leave in their midst as they pass thru the train. It's a daily annoyance, but you get used to it.

Jethro Tull said...


I can't lie to you, I'm a panhandler of sorts. I use a slightly different tactic in that I don a red Speedo and stand outside of the Vinoy to catch the brunch crowd.

Excellent post.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

The owning a mansion from begging is an urban myth I'm afraid.

green said...

hey saur-

I just sent you an email on an unrelated topic - that I'd like your response to (and so that it doesn't accidentally go into your spam box)....

Regarding panhandlers - I like the quote from the unnamed city councilman. and it is so true. there's a balance for sheltering the homeless and giving people an excuse not to work and be productive members of society.

Anonymous said...

This would not be a problem if there was proper care for the mentally ill. The majority of homeless on the streets are mentally ill who do not qualify for institutional care. We have shooters, drug addicts, beggers etc etc all because Pres Reagan shut down the mental institutions and turned them loose on the streets.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Ba Doozie, actually, you are correct to a certain extent but it was Jimmy CARTER that did it.

Green, thanks for letting me know. I'll look for it.

Daniel, I assure you, it was NOT an urban myth HERE. It made all the papers at the time. Perhaps that's where the myth originated from, however.

Alligator With the Red Drawers, thank you for your fascinating and honest contribution. :D

Mr. Grey Ghost, yes, I'm surprised though... wasn't Guilianni supposed to crack down on stuff like that? Did it just go back to normal once he was gone? I've never been overly impressed with Guilianni BTW.

Lazy Iguana, there was actually a business man who wanted them off his corner in one of the nearby towns, so he rented a bus, filled it with booze and food, and invited all the homeless people in. Then the bus took off and dumped them several cities away. It was quite effective, I understand. The city was appalled and hoped it would never hit the press. It didn't. ;o)

Kathleen & Hans, dittos all the way!

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I looked it up and the US government figures for average income based on begging is $7 a day.

How big a house would that get you?

Saur♥Kraut said...

Daniel, You've got me. I only know the actual story. From what I understand he wasn't merely a street corner bum - he was very engaging and hung out in a well-to-do business district. And, you have to understand this story happened in the EIGHTIES. I have no idea what they were netting then, or what he netted in his particular case. Perhaps people are much more jaded now and less willing to fork over money to a beggar who will likely be using it on drugs or booze.

Rally Monkey said...

Ease up! Such judgement against the poor. Lazarus was a beggar: Luke 16:19-31. So am I. And far from making enough for a "mansion", I averaged $1/hour in Vancouver, WA over a 4-5 month period. Try living on that.

Bruce Deile said...

I just posted as Rally Monkey above. Please see my letter on panhandling published in Seattle Times earlier this year on my website:

patchwork said...

what if it was you out there needing some sort of help and everywhere you go people look down on you and turn you away or call the cops you walk down the road and cops pull over and ask for your i.d maybe you lost it and now you get taken to jail or a ticket because you cant affored to get a new one or lack the right paperwork which means no job no help anywhere just more people looking at you as if you were skum no dont get me wrong some of them are low and dirty but not all heres a fact for you downtown st.pete starvation army wont feed a homeless person with out an id they turn them away yea no plastic no food no help just a warning to leave of the cops get called the city lets you see what they want you to see i used to be one of the homeless out there and now your tryen to ban feeding people whats wrong with you how could that ever pass you mind shame st.pete shame
try walking just 5 feet in the shoes of the ones you call skum and look down on because they they dont have what you have shame shame shame i hope all that work on passing these laws have to one day experence what they are doing from the other side

Brent said...

That IWF site is so Orwellian it looks satirical. I hate what's happened to both of our countries (I live in the U.S.). Fear, suspicion and paranoia have replaced love of liberty and reason. Not for all of us, though, so thank you for your excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

Asking a question like "Can you spare a dollar" certainly is free speech. No one is obligated to give a panhandler anything but they do have a right to ask. Keep on walking if you don't like it. This is America.