Friday, September 30, 2011

tully lazily checks in on panhandling

i'll admit: i got a little excited when i saw the headline for matt tully's latest column. mayor ballard and council republicans made a big stink about panhandling a couple years back, and even passed an anti-panhandling bill of dubious constitutionality, so looking back at whether things have changed since then is a great idea for a column and exactly the kind of thing local newspapers should be doing.

Panhandlers' hands still out in Downtown Indianapolis

A week after he was elected mayor, Greg Ballard walked around Downtown with me for more than an hour on a chilly afternoon, talking about his plans and hopes for the city he would soon lead.

At one point, we passed a common Downtown sight: a disheveled man who sat on the sidewalk with a cup and a sign asking for money.

"You won't see that in six months," Ballard said that day in November 2007, confidently promising to take steps to rid Downtown -- at least in large part -- of the panhandlers who seek money from visitors every day, to the frustration of many business leaders.

You might call the end of this story the education of Greg Ballard.

that's a good lede... but you might call it the end of a good column, because from this point on, it quickly degenerates as tully falls into his usual trap of talking to some "experts" and city officials, and uncritically parroting what they say.

the thrust of the column is how panhandling is a "problem" for the city because it creeps people out or something, and we're going to have the super bowl in a few months so god forbid the tourists should encounter any unwashed poor people while they're here. but this is about the worst way you can look at panhandling because it prioritizes the needs of the city's marketing over the needs of the city's inhabitants. when you start viewing panhandling as a problem for the city, you're no longer treating panhandlers as people. it's just a baby step from mayor ballard's statement that "we don't want them around" to abdul's suggestion that someone "get a giant broom and sweep them all away!"

tully makes a point to repeat the city's spin—seemingly mandatory for all indystar writing on this issue—that "most of those asking for money are not homeless". i've quibbled with this before, but ultimately it's not even the right question. the question shouldn't be whether they're homeless, but whether they need help—and most of them do.

tully mentions the city's ineffective homeless donation boxes, which have become a running joke because nobody uses them, but doesn't mention the city's much more troubling panhandling ordinance. as written, the law bans anyone from holding a sign or otherwise soliciting within 50 feet of a stoplight or stop sign. not only has the ban failed to reduce panhandling in the city, but it's selectively enforced, as we knew it would be—every day i pass at least 1-2 live sign holders who are in clear violation. often these live sign holders are wearing outlandish costumes, shaking their signs vigorously, or even dancing around, which is far more distracting and dangerous than most panhandling.

mayor ballard probably means well, but his perspective is skewed. panhandling isn't the problem—it's a symptom of the problem. the real problem is poverty, and panhandling isn't going away while our poverty rates are so high.

i suppose i shouldn't have expected too much from tully on this issue—his last panhandling column was just as bad.