City police enforced a state law against “aggressive” begging, and have cited to city court a widely known beggar, Mendon John Price. Rising to his defense and expressing indignation at “capitalism, racism and patriarchy” is a liberal Christian ministry in Chattanooga.
The progressively minded Christians at Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center say Mr. Price is a victim of the system of law and government that is oppressive and by statute has criminalized poverty.
But longtime gospel minister Randy Nabors, whose Presbyterian church emphasizes cross-cultural dealings and mercy among the poor, argues for discernment when you are approached by a panhandler. He favors not the easy fix of a $5 bill but conversations and relationships that give down-and-out people a better prospect.
“How should we respond to panhandlers?” Mr. Nabors asks. He answers, “Since I grew up poor I find it much better to help someone get out of poverty than to just sustain them in a miserable condition. I really don’t want to support somebody’s crack or alcohol habit, and I find that a little coin change here and there actually keeps somebody in a destructive lifestyle.”
Mr. Price is a fixture downtown. “I have seen John Price in action,” says one visitor, Ben Cagle in a letter to Chattanoogan.com, “and what I saw was the nearest thing to a ‘legal hold up’ as one can get.”
Mr. Price has a criminal record, police call him a “nuisance panhandler” for which they have cited him to court.
“John has been around for years,” says Gene Johnson, a deacon at New City Fellowship who first encountered Mr. Price 20 years ago. “Often people in this situation get some kind check, they do have housing, they do have some means of getting support. But in their case — and I think John is a good example — they actually look at what they’re doing as a job. This is their means of livelihood.”
Rev. Brian Merritt says the word panhandling “is offensive” and that begging is not a serious concern. "That is far from the biggest problem we have in our downtown area is someone that is poor and asking for money,” Rev. Merritt said. “This is a pretty sad reflection on a state that says they're really into The Bible.” Mr. Merritt says the citation suggests the city favors tourist dollars over its own residents.
Bob Doak of the city visitors bureau defends the prosecution as a favor to all downtown visitors. “People should be able to come downtown and enjoy themselves but not be subjected to aggressive panhandling,” Mr. Doak told TV3. “Aggressive panhandling is a problem that we should not have to subject ourselves to.”
Does giving subsidize fecklessness?
City ordinance bans panhandling in certain areas, and state law at TCA 39-17-313 prohibits “aggressive panhandling.” Forbidden is “intentionally touching” a person without consent, “obstructing the path” of a person or vehicle, “following a person who is walking away,” making gestures or motions “that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear of personal harm for refusing a solicitation of a donation.”
Mr. Price is cited to city court in which his case can be rapidly decided by the judge, who is trier of fact and of law, as in the old justice of the peace days. He may opt to waive the corporation court and demand his right to an indictment. If he agreed to a bench trial, he can appeal a guilty verdict in a lower court (not a court of record) to for a jury trial.
The Rev. Nabors says giving money to a beggar is a moral question.
“Some of these folks are homeless, some of these folks are harmless, some of these folks are hustlers, and some of these folks are honest. I suppose if there was a sure-fire way to know that a person really needed immediate help and was telling me the truth then I wouldn’t feel caught in a bind. The bind is there because encouraging and enabling liars, thieves, and lazy people is something I don’t want to do. The bind is there because I personally don’t like someone trying to coerce my generosity or manipulate me through guilt or fear.” Mr. Nabors expresses a bit of irritation. “In fact, it really ticks me off.”
Mr. Nabors’ thinking lines up with the now-lost distinctions American charity knew in the 1800s. One of them is that between the worthy poor and those who do not deserve charity.
“I feel caught in a bind because I don’t think the proper response to street folks is to give them a lecture, or start to give them an evangelical witness, unless we can actually get into a real conversation and a relationship. I would very much like to make a difference in someone’s life, and not just give them something to get rid of them, or give them something so I can feel like I did my good deed for the day. Most of those pocket change good deeds just keep people in bondage to living on the street. I personally don’t like someone trying to coerce my generosity or manipulate me through guilt or fear.”
Mr. Johnson the deacon has decades of experience with panhandlers, skid row living and homeless people. “It’s a very difficult problem because there are a lot of needy people,” he says in an AM 1240 Hot News Talk Radio interview. “I think God calls Christians to embrace those people. You see that God has a heart for the poor. Jesus in the first things He said in His public ministry, He said I came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind. He came for needy people. *** ‘I did not come to be served, but to serve.’”
Mr. Johnson says he can tell many stories of beggars who repeatedly lie. The question is should anyone be helped, since everyone is a sinner? Whom can be believed, ultimately? he asks.
To determine if someone is a worthy recipient in a brief encounter, “you can talk to that person,” he says. Often beggars tell gripping, deeply personal stories that are rehearsed to gain quick pity. “Don’t you work harder solving someone’s problem than they’re willing to do,” Mr. Johnson advises.
— David Tulis hosts a show 9 to 11 a.m. weekdays at AM 1240 Hot News Talk Radio, covering local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond.