Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In Response To A Letter To The Editor, Vol. I

To The Editor:

It is summertime, so expect to be accosted by panhandlers in the parking lots of Norfolk shopping plazas. I find it curious that many of these unfortunates do not appear to be homeless as they're wearing freshly laundered clothes and are obviously well-fed.

While most are harmless, some attempt to raise funds through either fraud or intimidation. Pocket change or offers of food or employment will get you an insult, as only "paper money" will satisfy them.

When three panhandlers approach in a pincer movement, or a disheveled stanger attempts to prevent you from entering or exiting your vehicle, it is not considered attempted robbery -- it's "freedom of speech."

If the Norfolk City Council will not address this problem, it is only a matter of time before this situation will escalate.

--Clint, Norfolk

To Clint:

I am deeply sorry that you are uncomfortable being approached by poor people on your way into Nordstrom or headed back to the office after a $30 lunch at Kincaid's (I would be too). It is equally unfortunate that these poor people do not conform to your preconceived notions of poverty and homelessness. You're right: if people are going to ask if you can spare a dollar or two they should look a bit more dirty and gaunt. They certainly should not appear to have any self-respect, as that would make it more difficult for you dismiss them as second-class citizens.

As to these pesky streetpeople being well-fed, unless you have recently donated a shit-ton of wonderfulness to our local food bank, it is much more likely that they are subsisting on cheap fast food -- which we all know is fattening and unhealthy -- than that they have taken a brief break from gorging themselves to con you out of your spare change.

Jesus, whose message you conservatives so love to misrepresent, commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and flat out told us that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (picture that!) than for a rich man to get into heaven. There's no ambiguity there. Give the panhandlers a dollar. It's not going to set you back that much. If you can't bring yourself to do that, maybe just stay away from shopping plazas for the rest of the summer. But good luck with that whole heaven thing.

And PS, you can't complain in paragraph one that panhandlers' clothes are too clean and then describe them as "disheveled" two paragraphs later. It makes it seem like you might be stupid or something.

--Megan, Norfolk


Brian said...

Goddamn poor people! What are they thinking trying to occupy space around Clint?

Jesus! I bet they're even trying to breathe Clint's precious air as well.

Somebody should really do something about that.

Megan said...

According to Clint, it's only a matter of time before things "escalate." Watch out, poor people!

vikkitikkitavi said...

"Offers of employment"?

Oh my lord, the poor guy is out there, trying to get them jobs, y'all, but they only insult and intimidate him!

He's a Christian martyr is what he is, just a Christian martyr.

Grant Miller said...

I'm not sure you will get a response.

Andy said...


I think perhaps you misread this letter somewhat, and I would like to offer a rebuttal.

To steer clear of your retoric, I would like to preface this by saying that I am decidedly NOT conservative. I am extremely liberal. I also espouse no particular religious beliefs. I abandoned Judeo-Christianity many years ago after becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the hypocrisy and lies that inhabit the very heart of the religion. In fact, I am schooled in philosophy with a specialty in Nietzsche (who was... shall we say, not the biggest fan of organized religion).

I find faults in both sides of this argument, but I find them especially with your rebuttal. You make many blind assumptions about this individual, which is a big mistake in any kind of discourse and is bordering on ad hominem.

For one, you assume that he is upper-class, or at the very least upper-middle-class. You assume he has pre-conceived notions about poverty and homelessness and that they should conform to certain standards. He merely mentioned it as a curious fact that they seemed to be rather well-dressed for people who claim to be so poor that they are begging simply to get by.

You also assume that this man is both conservative and Christian. There is evidence to support neither assumption. You have much animosity towards both, and I cannot say I blame you, but it is hardly necessary to attach both of these monikers (which you hurl as epithets) at a person you know nothing about.

Further, you assume that there is some kind of establishment, who desires to dismiss the homeless or disenfranchised as "second-class citizens".

Panhandlers can take many different aspects. There are those that simply stand by with a sign, asking for food or money, there are those that beg from sidewalks, and there are those that approach you physically, entering into close proximity to you, asking, or in some cases accosting you for money. It is these latter who cause much concern and consternation, especially given the unnecessary aggressiveness with which some of them approach you.

I believe, knowing what I do about the author, that his statement of the situation "escalating" was not referring to action on his part, but on potential increasing violence on the part of the panhandlers or other citizens who are approached in an aggressive manner. I can relate. Returning from a late night at work one night, my roomate was approached by an individual standing outside of a local soup kitchen (which I had at many points volunteered for). Upon being informed that my roomate had no money, he brutally attacked my roomate who barely managed to escape the encounter. To be sure, this is an extreme example, but it also goes to show that you never know who is approaching your person, nor do you know what their intentions are. By allowing this kind of behavior (and by this I mean the aggressive entrance of certain people into the personal space of others in a public area) to continue, escalation, of some kind or another, is inevitable.

I volunteered over a year of my life in volunteer service to the Americorps program on the VISTA level, attempting to alleviate the type of poverty that I was certain laid at the root of many of the world's problems, pandhandling included. I discovered, however, that, given the opportunity to raise themselves up off of the streets through the process of obtaining (free) training and getting a job, many (not all) of these people chose to remain on the street, panhandling.

What does this say about them? It says that, unlike you or I, they have chosen, deliberately to remain in the position that they are in, living as conscious non-contributors to society.

This, in and of itself, is a horrible thing, mainly because of our seeming inability to reach them and the existence of circumstances necessary to create such a view in them, and it needs to be addressed. I can understand certain notions of pride, but when someone says "I will give you free training, to the best of my ability, and I will help you find a job so that you can live on your own again", and someone says "no", what does that say?

Further, have you ever been threatened, yelled at or otherwise treated badly upon donating what a panhandler believes in an insufficient amount? After a couple years living in downtown Baltimore, I experienced it many times, and found it demeaning and hurtful. Have you ever been prevented from entering or exiting a building or vehicle by a panhandler asking for money? Did you know that these types of encounter often end in assault or even worse? My brother in law was beaten unconscious on the steps of his apartment building after just such an encounter. There is no way to distinguish or predict the outcome of this kind of accostment, so they must be treated the same.

To be sure, no one is in a position to judge other people, which I believe that both you, Mr. Jahn and I are all guilty of, but there are certain fundamental liberties we all expect to have, and aggressive intrusion into personal space or vehicle is certainly one of these, wouldn't you agree? Anyone who ignores this is showing profound disrepect for that other person, themselves and people in general, irregardless of their choice to live outside of society or their circumstances.

All this being said, Megan, you seem like a good person whose heart is in the right place. Your chosen vocation alone, places your good intentions far above those of most people, but there are aspects of society that you are not familiar with, yet and challenges against your person that you have mercifully not faced.

I wish you many continued years of safety from which you can teach children to be good people and even launch the occasional diatribe against those whom you believe need it.

Many people, however, are not so lucky.

Megan said...


For what it's worth, I've given your comment an awful lot of thought since I discovered it here a few days ago. And you are right: I made several unsubstantiated assumptions about the author of this letter. It was unfair of me to focus on him rather than on the argument he seemed to be making. The comments about Nordstom and Kincaid's were particularly snotty. I used his letter as a vehicle for my own diatribe, as you accurately characterize it.

However, even as I re-read his letter, it sounds very different from the argument you were making above. Perhaps that is due to length restrictions or editing by the editorial staff. "Offers of employment" could just as easily mean telling street people to get a job, as so many who are approached do. What is most unclear here is what the author hoped City Council would do to address this problem, or what he meant when he said the situation would escalate.

At any rate, I appreciate the time you obviously put into your rebuttal and your bringing my logical fallacy to my attention. I am also impressed by your willingness to believe in my goodness as a person despite the goodness I have not demonstrated here. Lesson learned. Thank you.