What would Jesus do? 

He wouldn't pass anti-panhandling laws to punish the poor

As I was dashing to downtown's Commerce Club a few weeks ago to meet with people of power, I met a young woman with her own powerful, if sad, message.

"You got some fancy nice shoes," the woman said, pointing at my pretty standard penny loafers, admittedly shined to brilliance. She had a speech impediment, and I'd guess she was retarded. A stoop forced her to spend a lot of her life looking at other people's shoes. I asked her name, and she said something like "Tish," but it was hard to understand.

It was clear that Tish was a street person, and, while waiting for the "Walk" light, I anticipated the pitch for a handout. It didn't come. I bemusedly asked, "Are you going to ask for money?" She shyly replied, "Just lose it if you gave me some."

In this location near "Panhandle Central" -- Woodruff Park -- hearing a homeless soul reject alms was stunning. It made me ponder my own values.

The Bible contains 10 references to homosexuality, many ambiguous, while there are about 300 passages that unambiguously address poverty. I figure God meant us to be at least 30 times more concerned about solving homelessness than, say, stopping gays from marrying. Public officials reverse God's emphasis and balloon it to about 3 million to one in favor of clobbering gays while punishing the poor.

With that in mind, I asked Tish to follow me to a downtown McDonald's, where I gave the clerk $10 to feed the woman. Along the way, she stumbled through her story. She'd been discarded by her family because of her disabilities and had been homeless "as long as I 'member." She said she'd been helped by several agencies, abused by many people, mostly men, but life "is OK, I guess."

In reporting on homelessness in scores of articles, including a week "on the street" in Miami, I've learned three things:

• The homeless have about six or eight stories. Listen to enough street people, and you hear reruns of why people are there. As Chris Allers, executive vice president of the Atlanta United Way, observes, "They'll say they have no place to stay or no job, but the real issues [often are] substance abuse and mental health."

• There's a growing number of homeless families, those who lived one paycheck away from crisis, and then missed that paycheck. Families account for about a fifth of the homeless. "We had to turn down more than 1,000 families last year. These are folks who often were guilty of nothing but being left behind by the economy," said Doug Mendel, executive director of Atlanta's Nicholas House, which moves homeless families into permanent housing while training them in financial and job skills. (Disclosure: I served on Nicholas House's board until last February.)

• The government invariably gets it wrong. Poverty is, as Jesus noted, always with us. But government, rather than mitigating that reality, exacerbates it. Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech expert on housing, commented earlier this year that to spiff up Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games, the city destroyed a third of its public housing stock. That contributed to a mushrooming in the number of street people to the current level of about 7,000.

Another example: Moving emotionally disabled people from hospitals to underfunded group homes resulted in tens of thousands of people incapable of caring for themselves eventually ending up on the nation's streets.

Behind those life-shattering mistakes is faulty reasoning. Officials are beholden to downtown power brokers concerned about image. Their solution is to sweep the poor off the street. That never solves the underlying problem, and the homeless return.

Atlanta is a paragon of such cruel foolishness. It got inventive at the time of the Olympics, and gave the homeless a choice: jail or a one-way ticket out of town.

More recently, burgs from Chicago to Baltimore to Atlanta have "cracked down" on panhandling. Our law was pushed by the mighty and the arrogant, such as Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker, who complained in a column that the homeless had had the temerity to interfere with her lunch plans.

At least Tucker gets to eat lunch.

The antagonism toward homeless people has had one predictable result: a rising wave of violence -- 84 reported crimes in 2005 -- including the murder of a 90-pound disabled woman in Berkeley, Calif., and a man killed in Holly Hill, Fla., "for fun" by five teens.

Atlanta's panhandling ordinance is a miserable flop. No noticeable impact whatsoever. The cops aren't enforcing it -- likely fearing a lawsuit for its unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. "There's no decrease in homelessness," says Anita Beatty, who runs a shelter at Pine and Peachtree streets and is an irritant to the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

A year ago, the city's one progressive step, the Gateway Center, opened. Having served 5,000 people during that time, center manager David Jones of Atlanta Union Mission said, "We're like an emergency room, offering job training and recovery for addicts, and shelter for those with mental illness."

Homelessness is often temporary -- lost job, eviction, etc. The chronically homeless -- usually with alcohol, drug and mental problems -- are the real problem.

"The only things that will reduce the numbers on the street are to preserve what's left of affordable housing and start paying a living wage," Beatty says.

But that would require immense investment of financial and political capital. I'm not sure how Jesus would address the problem, but I'm positive he wouldn't advocate a mean-spirited anti-panhandling ordinance.

I'd like to live in a community that offers hope to people such as Tish for a decent life. But, then, I'm a dreamer.

Get involved

· Here are some of the organizations that help the homeless: Nicholas House, 404-633-8386; Atlanta Union Mission, 404-588-4005; Task Force for the Homeless, 404-589-9495; Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children, 404-876-2894.


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