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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

A controversial ordinance before the Bakersfield City Council that would criminalize the act of panhandling, or soliciting money from another person, could become law by the end of this month.

Panhandlers are annoying. There: we can all agree on that point. But are they criminals? A panhandler can evoke our fear or guilt or discomfort. If we are uneasy when a random stranger asks for spare change, we might avoid areas frequented by such individuals. If, however, our belief system compels us "to look at all beings with eyes of compassion," in the words of the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, we may fish out a couple of quarters to deposit in an outstretched hand.

Of course, if we choose to say no to panhandlers, we do not necessarily lack compassion. Maybe we really don't have any cash on us, an increasingly common condition in the age of debit cards. Maybe we'd rather buy that grubby-looking guy a sandwich, so our coins won't be used for drugs or alcohol. Maybe we prefer to give generously to agencies and charities that help the homeless or the addicted or the mentally ill. And we are allowed to say no, to anyone who asks us for anything. It is our First Amendment right.

But is it not also a panhandler's First Amendment right to ask you for a contribution? A panhandler can ask, and you can say yes or no. And so far, no laws have been broken. Maybe your bubble of security has burst, maybe your eyes that your own prosperity has blinded have been opened, but these things are, so far, legal. City Attorney Ginny Gennaro notes that, constitutionally, with regard to civil rights, an ordinance that prohibits the solicitation of money would necessarily apply to charitable organizations such as the bell ringers of the Salvation Army, and community groups such as the Girl Scouts raising funds with their cookies.

So now we're getting crazy. Do we really want to make outlaws of the volunteers with the Christmas kettles and the little girls with the Tagalongs?

We know the answer: Of course not. We don't mind being solicited under some circumstances. As with so many issues before the American public, the solution lies in education, not legislation. When we educate ourselves about the social conditions that may lead people to panhandle, and when we find creative ways to help those folks in need, all of society benefits. Making something illegal does not make it go away, as we have proven with the decades-long War on Drugs. Making a benign, nonviolent activity illegal does, however, tie up the police and clog up the courts and fill up the prisons with nonviolent offenders. It also stigmatizes behavior without solving it. We cannot legislate our way out of uncomfortable encounters with our fellow citizens any more than we can legislate compassion.

For those occasionally belligerent panhandlers, we already have laws on the books against threatening or abusing people. The silent guy with the dog and the hand-lettered cardboard sign on the street median may be a sad case, but he does not deserve to be arrested. Poverty is not a crime; at least, not yet. I have a friend who travels with Ziploc bags packed with things like granola bars and raisins and wet wipes and Band-Aids to offer to the guy on the median. I'd hate to think she might be arrested for aiding and abetting a criminal lifestyle, because she is actually just a goodhearted person.

I confess that I have been one of the fortunate poor, in that during any economic crisis in my past, I was always able to panhandle my dad. I had a safety net. Now my children know that they can panhandle their parents. When you have no family, or when you have worn out your welcome with your family, you may have to turn to strangers in the street for help. I doubt there is anyone among us who has never needed any help from anyone.

I believe we are better than this ordinance. I believe we can solve our social ills together, with equal measures of compassion, creativity, and common sense. The self-righteous among us may be tempted to vilify the less fortunate, and to criminalize panhandling, but if, as Gandhi said, "(a) nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members," what unkind truths does this ordinance reveal about us?