Many Columbus County towns are dealing with the challenges of panhandlers, made even worse with a growing number of complaints of aggressive or threatening behavior by some.
Once common mostly in bigger cities where there are substantial homeless populations, rural communities are seeing more panhandlers, in large part because of the growing number of opioid and heroin users, or perhaps others setting up shop in communities that aren’t used to seeing panhandlers.
It’s hard to say no to people who genuinely seem to need help because many do. They are homeless, mentally ill or both, and their families have abandoned them.
Still, many groups that help the homeless or drug addicts say that giving panhandlers money is the worst option because it only enables them. Often, the money is used to buy drugs.
Locally, for example, there are plenty of reports of well-meaning people offering to buy beggers food or other sustenance, only to be turned down, often rudely.
The City of Seattle and nearby Tacoma, which have heavy homeless populations, have taken an aggressive stance toward panhandling.
People have constitutional rights to be on public streets and ask for money as long as they aren’t threatening, but cities are able to restrict certain aspects, such as limiting the hours and locations where people can panhandle, such as public places.
Operation Have A Heart is a Seattle initiative that encourages people to give money to organizations that help the homeless or otherwise provide options for panhandlers, rather than giving cash to panhandlers themselves. At the same time, Have A Heart reminds the public about the difficulties many homeless people and drug addicts suffer.
It’s important, they say, not to look down on panhandlers because almost all of them have found themselves in difficult life situations and need care and empathy; still, there are better ways to help them other than a cash handout, such as contributing to support organizations.
Whiteville is currently looking at a panhandling ordinance, and other Columbus County towns have their own methods of dealing with panhandlers. A tough-love stance is the way to go, though communities don’t need to put jail at the top of the list of options unless committing a crime warrants it.
As the county’s towns work on ordinances, officials would be wise to take a big picture approach. Engaging the faith community and other organizations that might be good partners should be brought to the table even before crafting ordinances begins.
There is a thin line between being tough with panhandlers and showing compassion for those who need a helping hand. Collaboration between local governments who must assure the safety of its residents and organizations that can offer positive options is the direction to go.