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Begging ban misses the point.

Byline: Clive McFarlane

A long time ago when I was working an eight-hour graveyard shift and carrying a full college course load during the day, I gave a hitchhiker a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was heading to my apartment in San Rafael. He was heading to wherever the road took him.

He was well-spoken, appeared a bit younger than I was, but had already completed college. We talked a bit, and after I had proudly discussed my hectic schedule, his rejoinder startled then irritated me.

"I don't do the 9-to-5 anymore,'' I recall him saying. He went on to explain that he had no cares in the world, that he just wandered to wherever his heart harkened. I thought he was attacking not just my way of life, but the social contract that binds us as a society.

"Well, what if I didn't give you ride?'' I asked, implying that he was partly financing his carefree life on the product of my labor.

"Someone else would,'' he responded without missing a beat.

I tell this story as a roundabout way of addressing what is really at the core of a Worcester ordinance against begging -- the fear that panhandling is a threat to the social contract, that it is an erosion of the idea that everyone must pull their weight.

The ordinance that was passed to curtail "aggressive'' panhandling and to promote safety is being challenged by the ACLU. After a preliminary injunction was denied in federal court and that decision was upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme court will decide next week whether to consider the case.

The ACLU argues that the ordinance "violates the constitutional right to peacefully solicit donations in public and to engage the public in political and other speech.''

The city says no such constitutional violation exists.

Yet, beyond this constitutional fight is the belief by city leaders that begging is unnecessary, unproductive and a stain on a city that is on the move. Prior to passing the ordinance, for example, the city formulated an outreach program to help panhandlers gain access to housing, medical services, food and other resources they might need.

The intent of the outreach program was to "address any underlying community problems which may be related to panhandling ... and the perception that there are not enough services for those in need.''

Police Chief Gary Gemme even suggested that respectability of the age-old beggar's craft could be achieved through a fee-based panhandling permit process.

But as I have mentioned in this space before, over the course of human history neither the threat of death, maiming or disfigurement have been successful in dissuading individuals from becoming panhandlers, or "unproductive members of society,'' as they were often characterized.

It was no surprise, then, that while a majority of the panhandlers contacted through the city's outreach program "express a desire ... to obtain assistance,'' many continue to panhandle.

There is one panhandler I often see on my way to work. He has a work ethic to be envied. He is at his post, it seems, every day, rain or shine and even when it snows. He often brings his lunch with him, so as not to lose much time on the job.

We might quibble over the legality and morality of his actions, or whether humoring his contrariness strengthens the social contract. But don't overlook that he knows, just as my hitchhiker of long ago, that he is able to do what he does because one of the few things that can be counted on in life is the generosity of most people. It is a generosity that runs deep and which is often no respecter of persons.

Contact Clive McFarlane at
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:McFarlane, Clive
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 10, 2014
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