Give Real Change

I visited New York City for the first time over Christmas break while roadtripping with college friends from North Carolina in 2002. We ate pizza, strolled through the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and took photos in Times Square. What I remember most about the trip was a sudden sound in the dark as we climbed out of the subway into the cold December dusk. A saxophonist was playing at the end of the long tunnel, and I remember how I paused, how the sound echoed down the hallway and how alive and convincing the music was against the miles of concrete. I remember the euphoric sense of serendipity that warmly wrapped my body. I remember how, for a brief moment, I felt deep in the belly of the city.

Last week I heard a musician playing his saxophone outside Riverpark Square in 102 degree heat. He stood near an ornamental tree and leaves shook over him in the hot breeze without providing shade. The streets swelled with people walking in and out of the air-conditioned food court for lunch. Like most street musicians, his instrument case was open, inviting coins and dollar bills.

I hadn’t thought about calling musicians panhandlers until the rollout of the City of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership campaign, which asks the citizens of Spokane to “Say No To Panhandlers” and to “Give Real Change.” The campaign has made me wonder: What exactly is a panhandler? From whom am I being challenged to withhold my loose change? Is a jazz musician who does not have a permit to play on the street a panhandler? If not, what is the difference between the musician and the person with a clever sign— “bet you can’t hit me with a quarter”— that makes me smile?

Summer "flying" a sign at Third & Division. The sign's creator asked to remain anonymous.

Summer “flying” a sign at Third & Division. The sign’s creator asked to remain anonymous.

I explored the “Know the Facts” section on the “Give Real Change” homepage, trying to determine the definition of a panhandler, and here’s what I found: Panhandlers solicit people for money in order to feed an addiction.They know how to access resources that would assist in their recovery, but they are more interested in conning compassionate passersby into giving them money for their next fix. They keep us from seeing “the truly poor” of our community. They overtax the system. They entice us with animals and with farcical signs. They live on assistance programs in small apartments.

It seems the intent of the campaign is to connect people with services and to give the wealthier members of our community the opportunity to be generous in a way that has more measurable and lasting results. But I fear that an unintended side effect of the campaign will be an increase in the already-widening gap between the productive citizen and the “other.” They don’t work for their money. They drink and litter. They need to go away.

Even if the campaign were less divisive, I’m not sure I’m on board with the logic. If I don’t give a dollar to someone at Third and Division, it does not mean that I will write a check for a dollar and send it to charity. The loose change in my cup holder is unrelated to my year-end giving, and I would suspect the same is true for most people. On the occasions that I do give someone money, I feel like I am doing them a small favor. I have no illusion of making the world a better place or of trying to change their lives. I find satisfaction in simply acknowledging that yes, I have some change in my pocket and don’t mind sharing, just as I don’t mind spotting friends who forget their wallets or taking my younger siblings to lunch since they make less money than I do.  I don’t have time to sit down with a stranger for a meal, but it still feels good to acknowledge another citizen and share.

What I hear the campaign saying is similar to what Shawn Vestal reported in his article last week—this feels like another “go-away initiative.” When coupled with the No Sit, No Lie policy and the recent attempt to thwart the STA Plaza’s renovations and pressure the city bus station outside of downtown and further away from the Greyhound and Amtrak terminals, “Make Real Change” feels like another attempt to make Spokane look like a more affluent and business-friendly city when nearly 15% of our population live below the poverty line.

If the campaign works, if panhandlers do disappear, what then? Can we  assume that everyone has given up their demons and are now in housing and working stable jobs? How do we know that they had demons in the first place? How do we know that our social service programs effectively meet the needs of every individual who needs help? If we succeed in our tight-fisted standoff, if we never give money to anyone who asks for it, if the streets are suddenly panhandler-free, the only guarantee is that they are now out of sight and that I am no longer confronted or made to feel uncomfortable by them. I no longer have to struggle with how to think about or how to interact with someone so different, or perhaps not so different, from me.

This sentiment challenges the campaign’s definition of real change. Real change could mean ignoring panhandlers. It could mean raising more money for charity, but so far only two individuals have contributed a total of $102 on “Give Real Change” the CrowdSwell page. Or, it could align with Luke Baumgarten’s recent suggestion that, rather than run off the vagrants, we “go back to that idea of public squares.” Rather than keep certain people off our streets, perhaps real change means investing in spaces that creatively reach out to the masses.  To me it means allowing people to practice free speech and ask for what they want. It means allowing people to decide to whom they want to give rather than badgering them with $25,000 of propaganda, which is how much the City and DSP have admitted to spending on the campaign.

We are two weeks into the “Give Real Change” campaign, and I continue to pass folks on the streets asking for money nearly every day on my commute. I also pass the Apple Store and Northface advertising new products, and I do my best to ignore the assault of campaigns that coerce me into buying what I do not need. If these companies are allowed to creatively entice me give them my money, what’s wrong with that man and his girlfriend standing on the corner asking for far less? What’s wrong with a clever sign, or a little jazz?

  1. Tom Hammer
    Tom Hammer08-14-2014

    Right on, Summer. Beautifully written, and I completely agree. Create public squares–many other countries know their importance. Allow free speech–of course, that is what it is. Please keep reminding us that there is no “other”. We are one. Tienes un gran corazon.

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