District 3 Blog
Latest Proposed Panhandling Ordinance
While my blog updates are typically trademarked by updates, community happenings, and a dash of humor, it's high time for me to speak up in an issue-specific post with you on a serious topic. The construction updates and pun jokes are back next week, I promise.
A few months ago I was appointed to fill a vacancy on the public safety review commission. Under Madison General Ordinance Sec. 33.22, the committee serves, among other responsibilities, as a liaison between the community and the city on public safety issues.
Soon the committee will be taking a look at the second version of a proposed ordinance banning a person approaching a vehicle which is in operation from the front or side. It also bans staying in medians longer than two traffic light cycles, and, as a driver, giving money or supplies to a person who is asking for money in the median. This ordinance will essentially ban the activity we have seen with increasing frequency around town lately, of folks panhandling from medians in traffic.
Ahead of taking a vote in committee, I wanted to share my approach and thought process as regards panhandling, homelessness, and the more needy members of our community.
Before we delve into the issue and the language in the proposed ordinance, let's be clear about the thrust of the proposal. Advocates of this proposal, including the mayor, claim that the proposal is about traffic safety. It's not. This proposal is targeted at specific people and specific behaviors. Advocates have to label the proposal a traffic safety measure to work around a US Supreme Court ruling which found against many local and county panhandling ordinances across the country. I could get into the legaleese but I'll spare you except to say there were 1st Amendment issues. Taking off my lawyer cap and putting on my normal person cap, it seems to me that saying a proposal is about one topic when it's really about another is lying. It's wrong. If city leadership won't even be honest about the thrust of a proposed ordinance, things are already off to a rough start.
But let's get back to basics. How do we think about the needy individuals in our community?
Let's start at the beginning. Permit me sharing my own story. When I was just four years old I saw a homeless person for the first time on State Street. I stopped dead in the street and (with the lack of subtlety of the very young), stared for several moments. The man asked for some money of those who walked by, and while at a young age I couldn't fully understand what those words fully meant, I could, with a child's intuition, grasp the profound sadness and desperation in the person in front of me. My mom pulled me away and we had a long talk later about what could happen in a person's life that they might find themselves in that situation. I remember being so incredibly sad at the thought that a person wouldn't have a home to go to.
As I grew up, I learned about things like addiction which could lose a person everything, including their family and home, and about untreated mental illness or other trauma which could leave someone with few or no options. I learned about differing (read: mediocre) education options in other states, and how not everyone grows up with the same options and opportunities as me.
As I walked by homeless people, I no longer felt the profound sadness I first had. Instead, I found myself mentally listing all the reasons they might be in such a position. That listed protected me from the intense pity and sadness I had felt as a child. It worked so well because it also protected me from seeing homeless people as people.
Ultimately, however, I realized that that was wrong, that I was judging my fellow human instead of seeing them as human.
After all, I have a home. I have a fantastic support system of family and friends, and am so fortunate to have never struggled with addiction. Whatever sadness I may feel is hardly the point when compared to the desperation and isolation that a person on the street must feel.
When I see someone begging strangers for money, my goal for that person is to get them whatever help they need and are ready to accept. My goal is to address their needs, not force them to try other, more dangerous and desperate methods to get their needs met. My goal is to assist, not judge. And my goal is to never ever punish the behavior as opposed to dealing with the root of the issue. How could we ask any less of this great and capable city?
While I wish that nobody in our great city was homeless or in need, the fact is that some are. Banning these folks from certain areas of the city, banning the needy from asking for money on medians, won't make them go away. In fact, forcing folks in need out of our sight forces them into places, and situations, which are even more desperate. Surely we could never be ok with consigning those in need to further desperation just to keep ourselves and our viewscape more comfortable. Surely Madison is better than that.
A lot has been made of this notion that the folks who are begging are secretly gainfully employed and educated individuals who are doing this on the side to net a little extra cash. Let's run that one through the common sense-o-meter. I have a doctorate, and, including serving you fine people, three jobs. At no time has it ever occurred to me that what would be really great is to sit outside in Wisconsin weather, earning sneers and taunts from people driving by, breathing exhaust fumes for hours on end, scamming people for some extra cash. I bet it hasn't occurred to a single one of you as an option either. There may be a few educated professionals begging for money for drugs or alcohol; I'm prepared to accept the possibility. But once again, the root issue is deeper than the behavior that we see as we drive by. If we want to help, not just judge, we need to target the root.
I don't see myself voting in favor of the proposed measure when it comes before the public safety review committee.
So, what can we do to work with those in need? We need ordinances and policies and program which address the root issues. First, we must see and treat homeless and those in need as people deserving of respect and dignity. Secondly, we must work with homeless and otherwise needy individuals to recognize and address their individual needs. I was in San Francisco for trial team camp after my first year of law school in 2007 (your alder is a nerd, you knew this), and I had a great conversation with a homeless lady there who said that she wanted one meal/day and a place to do laundry. Not exactly a tall order. Each individual's needs will be different and we must have the resources on hand to address them, from laundry facilities, to occupational training, to addiction treatment, to PTSD therapy, and so on. I'm very pleased that the county has purchased a building a few blocks off capitol square to serve as a day resource center for those in need, where folks can do laundry, have a shower, work with a case manager, etc.
One thing we shouldn't for a moment overestimate is the importance of a decent night's sleep. Our overnight shelters do great work but we need to support them better and create space for more beds so that nobody who is comporting themselves with decent behavior has to sleep outside. We can say that a person who has slept outside on the ground should get up the next morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, grab a bus out to a minimum wage job or two (or three, considering Madison's housing prices), but we'd be deluding ourselves. I can get through the day on about 6 hours of sleep on my pillow top mattress indoors, and 2-3 coffees. I make a point not to ask others to do things I won't. So I'm not about to judgmentally demand that someone who is homeless sleep on the street and put in full workdays week in and week out. It's not fair and it's not realistic.
This is part of an approach to homelessness known as 'Housing First,' which tells us that basic, stable, safe, housing is the cornerstone on which the rest of an individual's life can be built. Moreover, the theory purports that without this basic piece, the rest of the pieces, such as a job and wellness just won't come together. You can read more about this approach here.
Finally, we need to invest in affordable and mixed income housing both citywide and on the east side. We currently have a minimum of affordable housing units here in District 3. Due to lesser bus service than closer-to-downtown districts, it wouldn't make sense to have as much affordable housing as our downtown neighbor districts, but we must be prepared to do our share.
So, there you have it. We've got a deep-rooted issue to address here in Madison. Deep and complex issues require policies which address all facets of the issue, not judgmental ordinances that ignore the real issues.
I'm confident that we can handle this because of our city's values-we're thoughtful, innovative, empathetic, and we're tough enough to take a strong look at real issues, and address them. We know that judging each other is easy but understanding each other takes the kind of guts and toughness that make this city what it is.
I look forward to working with you and for you to address this issue head on
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