Begging the question

November 19, 2013

The timing of the decision by the Lumberton City Council — coming as it did in the wake of an impassioned and sometimes contentious debate about the construction of a homeless shelter downtown — to ban panhandlers from city streets, begs the question: Was this an effort to placate those who objected to the construction of a homeless shelter because they believed more clients being served food, yes, but also provided a place to stay, would mean additional vagrants downtown with their palms upward, which might hurt efforts to revitalize the downtown area?

It would have been a nice concession, but it appears the decision is unrelated.

City officials say that begging for dollars on the streets has been legal in Lumberton only through a permit process. But, even though the city had a permit process, there were no forms to be filled out, so instead of creating the forms, the City Council, at the recommendation of Police Chief Mike McNeill, simply adopted an ordinance banning begging. Violators face the possibility of a $50 fine that is unlikely to ever be collected.

Nonprofits, of course, have been exempted.

There are those who will criticize the City Council for this decision, saying that it is simply piling on the less fortunate among us. But those of us who have encountered panhandlers on the street should welcome the ban. It can be unnerving being approached by a vagrant asking for a handout — and, blame the economy for this, it is happening more and more frequently.

It should be clear that the city isn’t hostile to the homeless. Its decision to pursue grants to construct the homeless shelter, where as many as two dozen will be able to find a warm bed and a 100 or so a day can enjoy a warm meal, is Exhibit No. 1 that the City Council is not uncaring. Exhibit No. 2 is the city’s decision to go to the mat against critics of the shelter, including some who are heavily invested in the downtown area.

But back to the begging.

Giving a panhandler a couple of dollars is a feel-good solution to nothing. It might be used for a hot meal, or it might be wasted on alcohol or dope, but whatever comfort it provides is fleeting.

The homeless shelter will provide food and a bed, but most importantly, counseling services that might help these vagrants, so many of them mentally ill and veterans, get their lives back on track. After the shelter is constructed, any homeless person begging for dollars should be steered toward it, where real help can be found,