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Criminalizing panhandling again in Grand Rapids

December 5, 2017

The City of Grand Rapids once again is proposing a “ban” on panhandling in Grand Rapids, despite the fact that the ACLU has won a case against the city for a previously attempting to stop people from engaging in street panhandling.

In the name of public safety, 1st Ward City Commissioner Dave Shaffer, is proposing a new policy be adopted by the City of Grand Rapids, which would limit where and when people who are street panhandling can solicit financial support. (see new proposal)

However, this new proposal continues to sweep under the rug the harsh reality that there are plenty of people in this community that are struggling to survive. We know that Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap in the state, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute but such acknowledgements in Grand Rapids are hard to come by for a city that likes its claims to a booming housing market, ArtPrize and of course its Beer City status.

Now, I don’t want to over-simplify the issue of “street panhandling,” but the fact of the matter is that there are thousands of individuals and families in Grand Rapids who are living on the edge and thousands more who are one pay check away from ending up on the street. We cannot ignore or pretend that economic disparity in this community doesn’t exist and we must stop putting emphasis on charitable responses and start thinking about longterm strategies that actually create equity and respect the dignity of all people.

First, I use the term street panhandling, because it is important to acknowledge that the city leaders object to people in the street asking for financial assistance. Grand Rapids, like all municipalities, loves to give public money to the private sector is what are often referred to as tax breaks or subsidies. Just last week, the Grand Rapids City Commission awarded $29 million to a new theater and housing project in the downtown area. This is what we might call white collar panhandling, since those with economic privilege are taking money from the public. The major difference, besides the amount of money that is being given away to white collar panhandlers, is that the public usually finds out about the give-away after the fact. At least with street panhandlers, we all can chose to give or not give, instead of having someone else make that decision for us.

Now, people might argue that this is a good use of public money, because it creates jobs or serves a specific need, like housing and entertainment. We all know that the jobs argument is weak, since most of the jobs that will be created in the downtown theater/housing project will not pay enough to people so they could actually live in the housing units being constructed.

In addition, why is it that within this economic-driven world there always has to be priority given to what development projects will “give” us? Why can’t we say that participating in economic justice is a good, smart, just and compassionate thing to do just because it says we value the dignity of everyone in this community…….even if there are no strings attached?

Recommendations on what Grand Rapids could ban that didn’t mean shitting on people

Of course, I do not expect or think that this is what governments actually do. Therefore, those of us who give a damn about these struggles will have to be the ones to make these bans become a reality.

Back to Street Panhandling

The Grand Rapids City Commission will be hosting a Public Hearing on Tuesday, December 12 at 7pm during their regularly scheduled commission meeting. This would be a good time to communicate with those who run city hall, both before and during the commission meeting. However, again, I think we would be better off organizing to change things than simply appealing to those in power.

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