Should Panhandling be Considered a Crime?
The dictionary defines crime as, “an act of omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law.” Laws are set in place to protect the community and people involved. There are some laws set by states that seem ridiculous or unnecessary and others that are legitimate and do, in fact, protect the common good of society. For example, Arizona has a law against feeding pigs trash and California prohibits the consumption of any frog that dies during a frog jumping contest. These laws seem outlandish while others make more sense, like Hawaii’s law that bans billboards to preserve the beauty and views of the island and of course more important laws that protect society against thieves, assailants, and murderers. Laws are written in accordance to the severity of the act that condones it. With more and more panhandling seen in cities like Salt Lake, would a law prohibiting this be necessary? The majority of Salt Lake City’s residents would say yes. Panhandling could be considered a crime for a number of reasons; taxes are not paid on the money collected, it can cause injury or disturbance to the public, and it is not a long term solution.
Tax evasion is a criminal offense to all American Citizens. However, panhandlers seem to get away with this nearly every year. Many argue that panhandlers just do not earn enough to be taxed on however, panhandlers can make an average of $15 dollars an hour. That’s well above the minimum wage and if these citizens are expected to pay taxes, so should panhandlers. There are also many frauds out there that use panhandling as an alternative to getting a real job, one that collects taxes and contributes to society. If taxes are not paid by any other citizen, this would be grounds for an arrest.
Tax fraud is not the only argument against undesirable panhandling in Salt Lake. Many citizens believe Panhandling is too dangerous and can cause injury to either the public or the panhandler themselves. We’ve all seen the occasional beggar perched on the tiny sliver of concrete, like an island, in the middle of heavy traffic. It’s a dangerous place to be for any individual, let alone someone exhausted from the elements or hunger. Not only can it be harmful but it can also disturb the public. According to a poll published in the Desert News 20 percent of Utahns avoid downtown because of the aggressive panhandling. Karyn LeBlac with the Downtown D.C. said, “When panhandlers start to get aggressive or something along those lines, it can be very off-putting.” If people are avoiding an area as distinguished as downtown then maybe there should be something done to prevent this. Another recent poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates asked 366 Salt Lake City voters if they thought Panhandling should be considered illegal. A whopping 62 percent said yes. The majority of the public would agree that a law against panhandlers would be beneficial to the community.
Panhandling is not only dangerous, disruptive, and sometimes fraudulent but it also can act as a conduit for more crime and addiction. A survey done in January of 2014 reported 38 percent of all homeless people suffer from some kind of substance abuse. When cash is given to a panhandler there is no guarantee that the money is going directly to feeding them or helping them. Salt Lake City Police Sargent Michelle Ross warns, “Everyone who comes downtown and gives money to panhandlers needs to understand they are actually contributing to the problem.” Pamela Atkins, a homeless advocate also states, “My feeling, of course, is that when one gives money to a panhandler, it’s enabling that panhandler to actually continue their activities, whether it be drugs, or alcohol.” If money is given to an addict, which 38% are, then that money is most likely going straight into their drug dealer’s pocket or back to the liquor store. Atkinson suggests, “instead of addressing the issue through strict laws, it’s up to residents to help disengage from the trend.” If we truly want to clean up our streets, giving money is not the best solution.
The issue of poverty cannot be solved by simply throwing money out your window. Unfortunately, there are too many individuals who suffer from addiction and even mental health issues. Individuals like this need medical attention and professional help. If we, as a community, would like to see an end to Panhandling we could do as Jason Mathis suggests. Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance states, “The best answer to address all panhandling is to not give money to panhandlers.” Experts believe giving cash will just encourage some panhandlers to return to the same place. Instead they suggest donating to nonprofits and other organizations that provide appropriate assistance to these individuals. There are many local organizations dedicated to combating poverty here in Salt Lake City. Organizations like the Homeless Outreach Service Team or HOST work tirelessly to educate and involve the community in the needs of the homeless population of our city. They push towards a safe and effective way of treating the homeless. One that involves more community resources and services. Such as providing additional food for the shelters, more health initiatives to treat the mentally ill, even jobs and affordable housing placement for these individuals. Our efforts are much more helpful to these individuals if we work towards treating the initial problem, not enabling it. Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert says, “Give people in poverty a hand up, not a hand out.” Hand-outs like cash usually fuel an addiction or preliminary problem.
Panhandling is dangerous, sometimes fraudulent, enabling, and disruptive to the public, is it time to put an end to it? Ultimately, Panhandling cannot be considered illegal because that would violate the constitution and the American right to freedom of speech and expression. But there are a few regulations in place that are helping. Last year, Utah Legislature passed the HB101 Bill which specifically outlaws panhandling that is aggressive, impedes traffic, is done on public transit, or is done within 10 feet of an ATM or an entrance of a bank. However, there are safer and more effective ways to cleaning up the streets that don’t have to involve law enforcement and brutality. Because the majority of Salt Lake is against panhandling, it is up to us to educate ourselves about the situation and help stop the trend by give donations to the right people who can actually help.
Handly, Jim. “Should You Give Money to Panhandlers?” NBC4 Washington. NBC Washington, 3 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 July 2016. <http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Should-You-Give-Money-to-Panhandlers-284665211.html>.
McKellar, Katie. “Poll: Majority of Salt Lake City Residents Say Panhandling Should Be Illegal.”DeseretNews.com. Desert News, 01 May 2015. Web. 22 July 2016. <http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865627764/Poll-Majority-of-Salt-Lake-City-residents-say-panhandling-should-be-illegal.html?pg=all>.
Sterbenz, Christina, and Melia Robinson. “Here Are The Most Ridiculous Laws In Every State.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 July 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/most-ridiculous-law-in-every-state-2014-2>.