Just Begging to Cause an Accident
In the Nation's Capital
I was returning from work during rush hour when I saw the boys rushing into New York Avenue ahead of me. New York Avenue, U.S. Route 50, is a major east-west artery in Washington, DC., and my first thought when I saw the boys, white buckets in hand, running across the street to man traffic islands to solicit donations from vehicles stuck in heavy traffic.
In a parking lot at the side of the road, two large men, arms folded, stood next to a van watching the swarm of young teens/preteens as they approached cars to ask for money to “support” their “team.”
The team was not identified. The boys were dressed in street clothes, and I harbored unkind thoughts and serious skepticism.
My suspicion was not the only fly in this particular ointment. Certainly, I believed that the boys and the Fagins watching them from the side of the road were fleecing the drivers of two-ton sheep in customarily jammed traffic, but as they rushed out to confront drivers, they showed the youthful disregard for safety, stepping into the road without looking around them.
Admittedly, traffic moved slowly during rush hour. The stop-and-go traffic was far more stop than go, but rather than making the road safer, the sluggish traffic meant impatient drivers, hot tempers, and impetuous moves. Motorcycles and scooters weaved through traffic, drivers tried to squeeze through spaces smaller than their vehicles and tempers flared.
Although that set of recurring circumstances made me more angry and anxious than either the traffic or begging alone, it was not the only situation that tested my renowned patience.
Canal street in Georgetown is another east-west route that rarely moves smoothly. Georgetown University stands near the junction of Canal and Foxhall Road NW and an unusual traffic pattern involving the entrances to the Whitehurst Freeway and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge made constant attention a survival tactic. Foxhall Road meets Canal at about a 45 degree angle. The traffic on Foxhall at certain times of day barely moves and the light where it enters Canal seems to me very short. Yet, it is on a traffic island at that intersection that a person stands with a paper cup in good weather and bad, silently entreating the wealthy residents of that district along with those of us who number among the functional poor to contribute to their support.
On the Street Where You Live
eggars—I suppose that that is not the politically correct term. Individuals offering an opportunity for passers-by to contribute to the lifestyles of those willing to brave the elements to seek such support, whether they speak or not, are exercising their right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
The First amendment does not address the plight of the driver who stops next to the cup-bearer who must decide to submit to silent extortion and emotional blackmail or to rev the engine and wait for the opportunity to bolt from the starting gate at the first glimpse of green.
I submit that this person, too, presents a danger in distracting drivers and impelling them to act precipitously.
Of course, there are many locations at which beggars (Sorry.) position themselves, and pragmatically, these positions are rarely at deserted crossroads in rural areas, but in the most heavily-traveled urban areas at rush hour, the worst time of day for distractions or to cause sudden stops and starts by those trying to lend a hand.
I also must confess that, as much respect and appreciation as I have for firefighters, my heart sinks when I see them holding large boots at the same intersections to raise money for...for whatever it that firefighters must raise money, which raises another issue.
On the sidewalk, people asking for money are disturbing for many reasons, among them the ever present question of whether they truly are in need or are making fools of those who donate. I have seen the blind beggar on 10th Street remove his dark glasses at the end of shift to drive off in his Caddy. I read the account of the beggar in the same general are who winters at his place in Florida. To assuage my conscience and help those in need, I sometimes offer to take the person to a restaurant for something to eat. Sometimes they accept; sometimes they are as suspicious of me as I of them.
I recall a time at Pentagon City Mall when I was in line for takeout at a Thai food stall. A well-dressed gentleman of about my age approached me and quietly asked whether I would be willing to buy him half the lunch I was ordering. I was impressed by his manner and by his polite request for something to eat instead of money and I told the counter assistant to add whatever the gentleman wished to order to my order.
Understand that I am not wont to call everyone a gentleman, but this fellow was refined and well-spoken, his clothes neat and clean.
Despite my protest, he ordered a half portion and a small drink and we went to separate tables to enjoy our meals. From time to time I glanced at him, clearly savoring his modest meal. I wanted very much to ask him what brought him to this state, but I was well aware that my few dollars did not entitle me to invade his privacy.
Montgomery County's Bold Proposal
y consideration of the panhandling issue was prompted by a recent action by Maryland's Montgomery County officials to discourage panhandling, a remarkably rare phenomenon in that affluent community. The plan called “Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand-out” encourages drivers to contribute directly to charities that help the underprivileged instead of contributing to the safety and conscience issues cause by panhandlers in the street. This action results directly from the death of a panhandler earlier this year, when a car jumped the curb onto the traffic island where she stood. In another incident, reported by the Washington Post (September 11, 2013) the executive director of a charity that works with the homeless recognized a man holding a cardboard sign that claimed he was homeless as someone for whom she had provided housing.
The Montgomery County program provides for givers to text SHARE to the Community Foundation for Montgomery County. Of course, not all panhandlers would avail themselves of this charity, and the program never will work unless all drivers band together to withhold donations that encourage panhandlers to continue.
To resolve that issue, I suggest that charities also sell bumper stickers that say “SHARE,” and that the proceeds be allocated to helping the homeless even as they give the message that this driver is helping, but will not contribute to endangering the community and encouraging panhandling by givingh money to people in the street.
Pedestrians might purchase a book of tickets that say SHARE, perhaps with an address for panhandlers to seek assistance. Rather than cash, the donor hands a SHARE ticket to the panhandler.
Let us hope that this sort of plan—possibly refined—will increase assistance to those who need it as it reduces the dangers, moral dilemmas, and pangs of conscience associated with panhandlers accosting drivers and pedestrians.
Who knows what we can do about the firefighters and their boots?