Michael Ryan

Stopping roadside panhandling isn’t anti-homeless. KC should get the needy real help

If wanting a compassionate end to roadside panhandling makes one anti-homeless, one would nonetheless be in the best of company.

It includes tens of thousands of motorists, tons of cops, a good number of neighborhoods, multiple industrial associations, corporate leaders, just about every homeless service agency in Kansas City and some very nice City Council members. Not to mention one very caring columnist.

A year after a proposed City Council roadside safety ordinance was left to die on the vine, there are stirrings of another go at it.

“Yes, there is renewed interest in getting this before the newly-elected council members,” says Shawn Lauby, board director at Kansas City Industrial Council, “and they will be hearing from many of us very soon.”

As of last December, Lauby says, more than 230 individuals, businesses and other organizations were on a list in support of an ordinance that would prohibit prolonged standing on a median, traffic island or non-sidewalk area near a highway ramp.

City Council member Teresa Loar, who introduced the ordinance last year, says public pining for it hasn’t abated and that she’s ready to champion it again. Homeless organizations agree with her that the problem must be dealt with, not ignored. “They want me to do it,” Loar told The Star.

“It’s not a good solution for getting anyone back on their feet,” Dan Doty, executive director of City Union Mission, says of roadside panhandling.

If more people knew more about the practice, more people would be against it, Doty says — adding that City Union Mission has hosted former roadside panhandlers who report it’s mostly a way to make good money for bad habits. Some are legitimately down and out, he says, but that’s “more rare than common.”

Some are like the man named Vincent, who told The Pitch newspaper back in 2006, “I’m not homeless. This is a job. I have a $78,000 home.” At $200 a day, which Vincent said he might average, that’s about $50,000 a year tax-free.

Of course, many are truly needy — in which case, they’re inarguably better off somewhere other than a crowded intersection or highway exit ramp in all kinds of weather. Moreover, if they’re trying to support self-destructive substance abuse habits, your hard-earned dollars will only go toward keeping them out of the kinds of social services that could help break their addictions.

That’s compassionate? Homeless advocates don’t think so, anyway. I’m with them. I’m one of them.

Less important but no less aggravating than the human suffering that roadside panhandling perpetuates, or the safety hazards for giver and recipient alike, is the toll on property and property owners. Industrial associations know that better than most, as many of their properties abut busy roadways and intersections.

“Our members have experienced safety concerns such as aggressive behavior, trespassing on private property, illegal dumping/littering, public intoxication,” Lauby says. “Some individuals that panhandle during the day illegally camp at night on private or public property or under bridges. These camps generate loads of trash which is an additional safety concern. Some sites are difficult and dangerous to clean up due to used needles, defecation in bags, etc.”

You may like roadside panhandling even less knowing that law enforcement and social service agencies believe some of it is cynically orchestrated by what might be either coordinators or overseers. Kansas City police officer Jason Cooley says neighborhood association leaders have reported such things as a pickup with a Wyandotte County tag unloading intersection solicitors at Independence Avenue and The Paseo. Do organizers skim the take?

“It’s possible,” Cooley says, adding that officers have heard such reports. “If there’s organizational structure behind it, as with any organization there’s a boss — somebody that coordinates and recruits. The boss has to get paid too.”

Doty says some panhandling is “definitely” orchestrated, noting — as have past media reports — what amount to be shift changes on corners. Doty said there have also been cases of panhandlers sharing puppies and children as sympathy-inducing props.

Such scheming exploits the poor and manipulates the generous.

Neither pointing out these things nor working to end them is heartless. I would submit that letting it go on may be.

It’s society’s responsibility to do something, Loar says. “It’s not handing them change on the corner.”

In reality, it’s making a change in the law.

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The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.
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