The Downtown Seattle Association has taken the offensive on panhandling again. Today I talked to a reporter from the Puget Sound Business Journal who said they told him that incidents of aggressive panhandling were up forty percent this year. Their theory is that Tacoma's stringent new anti-panhandling laws have driven the hard cases to Seattle. The reporter wanted to know what I thought.
"I'll bet you dollars to donuts (My mother used to say this — Sometimes I can't believe what I hear coming out of my mouth)," I said, "that if you call West Precinct, they can't corroborate those numbers. The MID throws statistics around like they're real but there's no science behind them at all."
Which is true. The Metropolitan Improvement District has their Downtown Ambassadors walking around writing up incidents of panhandling, alcohol and drug activity, sitting or lying on the sidewalks, urination, defecation and such, but the sort of consistency that would make these numbers meaningful — numbers of ambassadors on the street, what they are focused on looking for, primary areas of deployment — simply isn't there.
The MID finds what they're looking for. This is how, for instance, the MID could argue last year that public urination and defecation has risen since the installation of public toilets. Similarly, they now argue that five months after launching a campaign to discourage panhandling, the results are in. Panhandling is up by forty percent.
Yeah. That makes sense.
I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that the panhandling education campaign was just the beginning of what appears to be an ongoing strategy. As the downtown goes more and more upscale, the poverty that exists amidst our troubled affluence is to be rendered as invisible as possible.
And if real solutions are expensive and complicated, then increased repression will do just fine as the next best thing.
You don't need to be a genius to see where they're going with this. If aggressive panhandlers are coming here from Tacoma because that city has enacted stringent anti-panhandling legislation, maybe we need laws that will make Tacoma look like a bunch of smelly homeless-loving-hippies! It's reverse polarity magnet theory.
On a related note, I got another call today from a guy who doesn't give to panhandlers because he thinks that nine in ten of them are on the make. But, he finds the existence of that ten percent who might be truly needy very troubling. He wants government to remove the ambiguity from poverty.
"What I need," he said, "is a way to identify the ones who need my help." He suggested that a licensing process be created to certify the truly needy. Then these could proudly display their deserving poor badge, and people like him could stop anxietizing.
This idea actually has a long history. The first laws requiring the public badging of paupers appeared in England in 1697 and persisted well into the next century.
"One could argue that a licensing process would be demeaning," he said, "but it's certainly no less demeaning than panhandling itself."
The caller said he could remember the first time, in the seventies, that he saw a panhandler in Seattle. He thought it odd at the time. America is no longer a superpower, he said. We are now "the wealthiest third world nation in the world."
As extreme poverty and extreme affluence rub shoulders more and more, that prescient description will only become more apt.