It’s so easy to be offended when you’re stopped at a traffic light and a scruffy, unwashed man suddenly leans into your open window and offers to clean your windshield. Or the guy on the freeway off-ramp who is asking for help buying groceries. I don’t know what it is that makes saying no my default response.
However, when you actually get to know some of the people in that situation — as I have in small measure through the work my wife did co-founding a ministry organization reaching those very people — you tend to be offended in the opposite way when governments would restrict the right of those people to simply stand in an out-of-the-way location with a sign asking for whatever pocket change you can spare.
That’s the position that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove — and anyone else who lives in community — finds themselves in when laws are passed that makes life even harder for people for whom it’s already hard enough.
On Wednesday he wrote:
In 2003, my wife Leah and I came to Durham to start the Rutba House, a Christian community of hospitality where the formerly homeless and the formerly housed share life together. Over cups of coffee and around our dinner table, we have learned the difficult stories behind the label “homeless” while also knowing the people who bear that label as friends. We have not ended homelessness in Durham, but we have seen that community is possible despite our fears and deep histories of division. We need not be afraid of those who beg for our help. In fact, our experience has convinced me that we cannot become the Durham we hope to be without them.
Our city’s new anti-panhandling ordinance has highlighted for us the importance of what we’ve learned at Rutba House over the past decade. Passed without public conversation as part of a consensus agenda in December, the new law did not go into effect until mid-January of this year. When it did, those who had purchased permits to beg under the old law were informed that they would be ticketed if they continued to “fly signs” at their usual stations. Within weeks, people who were asking for side jobs or spare change faced $250 fines. To date, at least two of them have gone to jail.
I do not believe City Council passed this new ordinance to send poor people to jail…
continue reading at Everyday Awakening
On Friday, this update:
…Last night, we had our first public meeting on Durham’s new anti-panhandling ordinance. Mel Williams of End Poverty Durham greeted the 200 people who crowded into Duke Memorial UMC’s fellowship hall by saying that we evaluate every public policy by one question: how does it affect the poorest among us?
If we are to know, we must listen to them. So we did.
One after another, men who have been ticketed for begging told their stories. Steve told about how, as he was standing on an exit ramp with a sign that said “Will Work,” his old boss saw him and picked him up last month. Now he has regular work and is able to pay the rent. But he came to speak for his friend Keith who just learned that he has cancer and is no longer able to ask for help because it’s illegal. Steve stood to speak for people like Keith who’ve been pushed further into the shadows.
Country shared his story. He told how he started priming tobacco when he was nine years old–how he worked hard every day for forty-one years before he was injured in a construction accident. On disability now, he gets medical care and a $710 check each month. But when his bills are paid, he’s already five dollars behind. For years, friends in Durham have stopped by Country’s corner and helped him make ends meet. But he got a ticket last week for talking through a car window to someone he’s known for years.
These are the stories that have convinced us that this new law is wrong. They are stories that make us ask, “How could a law like this have come to be?”
Some of us have spent Lent asking this question. When we asked the guys on the streets who’ve been getting tickets, they said, “Nobody asked us before the law was passed.” When we asked folks around town who run our homelessness services, they all said no one had asked them. So we talked to the Homelessness Services Advisory Council–the city/county group that exists to advise City Council on issues that affect the homeless. And they told us no one had asked them either.
How could a law like this have come to be? I think the answer is simple. Durham had not heard these stories.
But now we have…
continue reading at Jonathan’s blog
There was to have been a protest meeting on Sunday night. At this point, Jonathan hadn’t posted what the outcome was of that rally.
This type of thing is repeated in city after city in North America. Smug middle class people in their minivans or sedans weary of being accosted as they are stopped in traffic or walking on an errand downtown. People with the very attitude I confessed to myself in the opening paragraph. (My wife usually jumps in at this point and quickly produces some coins; then we drive away; I ask how much she gave; she tells me; I suggest she was overly generous. It’s a recurring scene.)
Not wishing to be thus imposed on for money, they urge their city or town councilors to pass legislation that will end the inconvenience once and for all. So the rich get richer and the marginalized get more marginalized.
But it’s different for Jonathan and the people in his community because he knows the people and their stories. And really, they is us. Anyone sitting in front of a PC or Mac right now reading this is conceivably there but for the grace of God.