Asking For Change 


Boy, this panhandling problem in Memphis is getting out of hand. At the corner of Sam Cooper and East Parkway last weekend, there must have been at least 20 of them! They were waving buckets, cheering and laughing, approaching cars stopped at the light. They were even wearing uniforms! Talk about aggressive ...

Sure, they were raising money for their youth football team and they were kind of cute, but, nonetheless, they were panhandling.

Then there's the guy who stands on the Madison Avenue overpass where it meets the ramp from I-240. He's there all the time, silently holding a sign that says he's homeless and hungry. He's also a panhandler; he just lacks a worthy cause — except maybe his empty belly.

And what about the guy who shows up at the Midtown Walgreen's now and then? He sits on the sidewalk outside the entrance, asking for money to get into a shelter for the night. He appears to have a mental issue of some sort, but he speaks softly and politely. A very zen panhandler (zenhandler?). I don't mind him being there, but sometimes people complain to the management and he'll get run off.

Memphis is loaded with folks asking for money: the guy at the gas station with his car hood open who needs $27 for "a radiator hose"; the woman in the Kroger parking lot who wants change for "baby formula"; the Memphis Fire Fighters who raise funds by holding up empty boots at intersections. Whether it's for a worthy cause or a scam or just a poor soul needing help to get through the night, it's all technically panhandling.

So how do you regulate it? How do you allow a youth football team or the Memphis Fire Fighters to raise money via actively soliciting the public trapped in their cars at an intersection and deny the guy passively standing on Madison Avenue?

The Memphis City Council is now grappling with this issue — as many other cities around the country have done. The council specifically wants to eliminate "aggressive" panhandling. And I get it: Nobody should have to feel threatened or intimidated by someone asking for your hard-earned money. But as other cities have learned, panhandling ordinances can be surprisingly complicated to enact, and they often draw lawsuits: Since panhandling typically involves a spoken request and is therefore a type of free speech, it is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

But there are a lot of gray areas. The Supreme Court has, for instance, ruled that the city of New York could ban Krishna disciples from soliciting people at JFK Airport but could not ban them in some other public spaces.

Cities have attempted to regulate panhandling through "time, place, and manner" ordinances. In other words, regulating when, where, and how panhandling can take place. The council might, for instance, decide that bona fide charities and recognized civic groups will be allowed to raise funds via public solicitation, while banning an "aggressive" guy who's up in tourists' faces on Beale Street.

But who decides what's aggressive? A person from rural Tennessee, unused to the ways of the city, may think any solicitation by a stranger on the street is aggressive and make a complaint, tying up a police officer whose time might be better spent elsewhere. And who decides what constitutes a legitimate charity or civic group? Is some government functionary now going to be charged with this duty? Will permits be required for groups to take over a street or intersection? It's something to consider, if the council goes that direction.

The bottom line: Be careful when asking for change. Sometimes you come up empty.

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