OUR VIEW: They’ll decide who eats and who begs (vote in poll)

Staff reports Updated: April 7, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: April 7, 2010

Now that city and county officials have made laws forbidding the homeless to camp, talk is underway to crack down on street begging and to control who gets to eat at soup kitchens. Though camping bans may have been needed, the zeal to control the homeless is getting carried away.

Much of the community’s homeless policy originates on an e-mail discussion forum operated by Matt Parkhouse. The discussions involve key players in the social services network, most notably Robert Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak. A host of volunteer social workers and activists participate, including Janis Heuberger — the woman who filed an EPA complaint about the homeless along the creeks. Forum contributors recently condemned the idea of a private campground for people who want to live outside. What will some of the homeless do if we don’t allow them private space on which to live?

“My guess is some of them will leave COS, some will disappear into the underbrush, and some will seek help from the existing shelters and agencies,” said a contributor named Judy.

The city’s camping ban led some to camp on county property. On Tuesday, after El Paso County commissioners passed their own ban, Parkhouse raised another issue:

“I just saw a brief local newscast saying panhandling is a LOT worse (both in numbers and aggressiveness) Downtown of late.”

Heuberger sent an e-mail saying panhandling is on the increase on Tejon Street, in part because of “folks that are in substance abuse programs on Bijou dumping out into downtown.” One man from a halfway house asked her for a cigarette. She said a walking patrolman could curtail panhandling.

Heuberger’s post led Colorado Springs Police Officer M.J. Thomson, of the department’s Homeless Outreach Team, to write that police don’t know about an increase in begging: “I will see if the HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) may have some time to work in the DTA (downtown area) to see if we can contact some of these aggressive pandhandlers.”

Holmes joined the discussion to explain that a skilled panhandler can take in up to $100,000 a year: “What is the money used for? Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol,” Holmes wrote.

The conversation turned to a program Holmes wants, which would issue identification cards to the homeless who participate in “case-managed assistance.” Soup kitchens would be asked to deny meals to people who don’t qualify for identification cards within two weeks of showing up for a first meal.

“By providing meals, the Marian House supports the chronic homeless in their chosen life of abusing drugs and alcohol, and their support is a major factor enabling them to live on the streets. Will the church reconsider their interpretation of the Scriptures and cooperate with the City and the community and do their part to help end homelessness by ceasing to be enablers?” asked Judy Tangen.

(Please vote in poll to the right, in red type. Must vote to see results. Thanks!)

Steve Saint, executive director of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, explained that Catholic teaching views humans as “fundamentally good but universally a race of beggars for God’s mercy. Jesus and the apostles were a bunch of homeless guys getting hand outs. Every saint from Francis to Mother Teresa was poor in the financial sense. So it will be hard for the Marian House to adopt a policy of shutting ‘the least of these my brothers’ out of lunch after 14 days.”

He’s correct, said Jason Christensen, executive director of Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs. Christensen told The Gazette’s editorial department that making it harder for people to eat would only increase begging. Furthermore, he said, fewer than 25 percent of those served by Marian House soup kitchen are homeless. Most customers are senior citizens, disabled or unemployed people with homes.

“Our mission and Gospel call is to feed the hungry,” Christensen said. “We do not check IDs, nor will we.”

So much for the ID program. Forget it.

Any serious push for police to curtail begging will also fail. While it’s legitimate and useful for police to stop aggressive or threatening beggars, it’s completely illegal for police to prevent one person from simply asking another for money. The First Amendment protects our right to communicate nearly anything — most certainly our wants and needs. Upholding that right outweighs concerns about the irritation caused by people who beg.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet struck down an anti-begging law in New York in 1993. He said police violate the First Amendment by merely asking a beggar to move along. Sweet said there is little difference between a beggar and a charitable agency asking for money: “The beggar just saves on administrative expenses.”

This free country forbids governments from criminalizing people on a basis of socioeconomic status. We’ve banned the homeless camps. We may want to leave it at that.

Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor, for the editorial board

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