Over the past few years, the city has increased its attempts to convince homeless people that Lawrence is not a good place to be. We have new laws regulating how the homeless may ask for money on the city streets, and city employees have destroyed a homeless “camp” on city property by the river. But in spite of these and other attempts to make Lawrence a less desirable place for the homeless to settle, they still are out there on Massachusetts Street every day reminding us that the poor are still with us and asking for a spare dime or quarter.
There’s the woman who sits with her small child asking for help. There’s the rather scholarly young woman who sits quietly reading a book most of the time but who occasionally also plays a sort of music on an instrument or two. There are the various buskers, some, perhaps, better off than others, who play violins, guitars and other things with an old coffee tin on the ground in front of them with a coin or two at the bottom for inspiration. No one can walk down Massachusetts Street without seeing our town’s beggars.
I grew up in New York City and, over the years, I’ve travelled to a fair number of cities around the United States and in Europe. By comparison to what I grew up with and what I have seen on my trips, Lawrence’s street people are quite decently dressed and behaved. Rarely, am I accosted in any sort of aggressive way here in Lawrence. For the most part, those who ask for money are polite and, indeed, even if you do not do what they ask, they generally still say “have a good day” or “God bless.”
I’m sure, however, that some of our city’s retail merchants feel quite differently. To them, our street people are inconvenient distractions. Certainly, they take up space on the sidewalk. Some shoppers undoubtedly try to avoid beggars. Others are put off by having to pass by them to enter a shop. Most would say that street people don’t add to the sophisticated ambience our retailers wish to create.
Recently, Lawrence’s downtown business community has issued a call to the general public asking that individuals refrain from giving money to beggars. Instead, we will be provided with “resource cards” giving our homeless poor information about where they can get help. I’m all for the cards. Great idea! I’m a bit less enthusiastic about the request to deny our street people the change they ask for.
Nobody has to give a beggar money. But some of us feel that these small exercises in charity, from one person to another, are what charity is all about. I am constantly being sent all sorts of advertising from charitable groups asking me to donate large sums to them. I give to sum, though never as much as they’d like. But I have to admit that I usually feel far better about giving a quarter to some poor, deserving mother with a child and a sign saying that she is unemployed and looking for a job than I do about sending in my check to some multimillion dollar organization whose leaders earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
I think that helping the poor by sparing them a few cents or even a dollar is the best kind of charity, the kind the Bible urges us to engage in. When I see poor folks on the street asking politely for some change I am reminded not only of the Bible, but also of Shakespeare and his famous statement: “The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath…”
Sorry, retailers, as much as I support downtown economic development, I cannot support this initiative. I’m still going to help folks with spare change when I can. It’s good for the soul and, I think, it’s good for the city as well.
— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World. Read his “Grumpy Professor” blog at www2.ljworld.com/search/vertical/weblogs.entry/?q=Hoeflich.