Recently, on March 12, 2017 the Conway Police Department issued a statement on the increase of panhandlers in the city of Conway. Lieutenant Clay Smith offered a reasonable and clear explanation on the situation stating,
“…a fairly recent Court decision basically voided our city ordinance and made panhandling on street corners legal or within an individuals rights to do.”
The legality of such a decision is for the courts to decide obviously. Our law enforcement personnel who do a great job of serving and protecting our community are taking the right approach in pointing these men and women to the appropriate resources to assist in alleviating a specific need.
While the courts and Conway Police are upholding their responsibilities of determining constitutionality and enforcement respectively, the citizens of Conway have responsibilities as well.
Yes. We. Have. Responsibility.
When you drive down Oak Street and pass one of these panhandlers on the corner, who do you see?
One may say, “I see a hustler.”
Another may say, “I see a guy unwilling to get a job.”
Another may say, “I see a pothead.”
And another will say, “I see someone with a need.”
If I may, when you drive down Oak Street this weekend remember the person you see on the corner is a human being. A human being who is like you and I. What makes him or her a human being is their presence to occupy a space in time and by occupation of that space you recognize their existence. He is a human being because he has sensory perceptions as the cars drive past him and the wind brushes across his arms. She is a human being because she realizes the temperature changes on body. They are human beings because they along with us will at some point share in the transformative experience of death. If I may be so bold, you are standing out on that corner with cardboard in hand.
What responsibility does our city government have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Our city government must create an environment which those who want to provide benevolence in the form of shelters and food can flourish. I am thankful for Mayor Bart Castleberry who is assembling a task force to address poverty which includes homelessness. Our city missed an opportunity two years ago to significantly address this concern. We have another opportunity which will require the strong participation of the mayor’s office, city councilmen and women, nonprofits, faith groups, and civic organizations. We laud our city being a compassionate and giving city. Such laurels must result in tangible and sustainable solutions which give panhandlers a way to prosper with dignity.
What responsibility do our faith groups have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Can we complain about not having the resources to address homelessness while we possess the financial means to end homelessness? Speaking to my faith tradition, we have the immediate responsibility to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we have the equal need to care for the poor, widow, and orphaned.
I state it as an “equal need” because the two great commandments carry equal weight. We are our own worst enemy as we offer people an ethereal hope while not equally offering hope in the present. Have we become so insensitive we will invest millions of dollars to convince someone to believe in Jesus whom they have not seen while wrestling over $50.00 to help a homeless person whom we see?
We have a responsibility to meet the homeless man or woman on the street because in some powerful way Jesus Christ himself is standing on the street corner. Yes, I anticipate the usual cast of characters who will stand up and say the usual stereotypical statements about the poor. Yet the burden of proof is on each person who uses such stereotypes to justify why he or she does not want to experience the fullness of his or her humanity. On the street corner is your opportunity to meet and talk with Jesus Christ.
Finally, we have a responsibility as a city. Let us stop making excuses. With the level of financial power and influence we possess in this city homelessness and panhandling can be addressed. We lack the will to do so for the sake of others. If we can demonstrate through voting the construction of a new high school, Central Landing-which still is not finished, and road improvements, can we not do something powerfully for others?
The panhandlers are a judgement on our city. A visible presence to persons from all over Conway the homeless are here and God wants us to answer their call. These men and women are a visible presence that weakness is within the boundaries of our city. But this discipline can be responded to in a turning towards the homeless and panhandlers, embracing these men and women, and saying,
“Let’s walk together.”
Overview of the Legislation
Arkansas State House Representative Mary Bentley (R) has submitted House Bill 1035 as an act to be considered during the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas which will convene in 2017. HB 1035 has two purposes; 1) restrict food stamp benefits to the purchase of healthy foods and 2) address obesity among persons living in poverty who by “overconsumption of excessively sugared foods, food products, and beverages increases the risk of obesity and other diseases” (HB 1035, Section 1, (a), 2).
In summary, HB 1035 seeks to influence the health of low income Arkansas citizens receiving SNAP benefits by restricting benefits to the purchase of foods and beverages possessing nutritional value as determined by the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS will develop these restrictions based on current programs such as Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and the implementation of the modified program will depend on DHS having approval from the Department of Agriculture.
On face value, Representative Bentley’s proposal serves to address a needed concern in our state but like all government interactions there will be unintended consequences. Immediately, restricting food purchases to healthy foods will cause men and women to purchase food at a higher cost and therefore, impact purchasing power. Secondly, SNAP acts a “supplement” to an existing, though limited household income, creating a situation in which another income source will be needed to make up the loss due to the purchase of higher priced foods. It is important to understand who are the men and women who will be impacted by this legislation.
The Obvious Need
The United States Census data reports 13.5% of persons are currently living in poverty. In our state of Arkansas, 19.1% of persons or 568,836 beautiful persons are living in poverty. In a land of material prosperity, men, women, and children are the working poor seeking many times to make decisions between rent and utilities, groceries and medicine. It is a curious thing our legislatures are quick to amend and financially restrict programs which impact the poor and not as quick to limit their own spending power. When was the last time a legislature proposed spending restrictions on its own bureaucracy? I am willing to be corrected. More importantly, who are these men and women?
Angela is a single mother of two. Angela works in the medical field assisting doctors with patients and based on her hourly wage of working forty hours per week Angela qualifies for SNAP. Angela, could take a second job but such an action would not allow her to be home for her children after school hours. So, what would you do?
Carl is a single father of two. Carl spent two years working with DHS to gain custody of his children who experienced a terrible situation of abuse in the home of their biological mother. Carl secured employment at a local car wash and uses SNAP to provide meals for his children. When the weather is bad, Carl does not work. SNAP functions as a necessary resource for his children.
Per the USDA, an Arkansas household receives an average monthly benefit of $252.57 through SNAP. The proposed legislation will impact 214,056 households or 468,904 persons in our state. Open a refrigerator and you will find generic three liter sodas, basic eggs, milk, and close to out of date meat. Take a moment, pull a seat up to the kitchen table of these households and look in the grocery bags of these men and women. You will see knock off Cheerios, potato chips in a yellow bag, and maybe those vanilla cookies that come in the long three rows. These are typically not the goods you will find in Kroger on Salem or Whole Foods on Chenal Parkway. These are men and women who are taking what they have and putting food in their stomachs to make it through the day.
The Responsibility of an Individual and Society
Human beings are participants in a shared reality possessing a common bond because of their personalities of rationality, creativity, and need for affiliation. In other words, we are all brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity, religion, or economics. As individual human beings, we are the center of responsible action and each of us must live in a manner which extends our individual lives in a moral and ethical manner. Simultaneously we exist alongside other individuals. Individuals mobilize to create a society to maximize individual lives and accomplish a set of goals based on shared values. In the context of a society, the tension between individual needs and societal preservation exists. The individual has the responsibility to act morally alongside his or her neighbor which includes the use of resources. The society acts to serve the individual, especially the weakest, so the society can continue to flourish.
Our society determines to address food insecurity by establishing SNAP and improve an individual’s opportunity to purchase food. The individual in response to such generosity has a moral obligation to use such resources for that expressed purpose. Under the proposed legislation, the representatives of Arkansas identify it is necessary to create amendments to this program and yet the proposed approach does not necessarily address the second objective of obesity reduction through healthy eating. Therefore, what role can the society and individual play in improving the use of SNAP and obesity reduction?
Recommendations to the Legislature, Community, and Individual
In the Gospels, Jesus looks over a mass of men, women, and certainly children which had been following him and listening to his teachings. At one point, a disciple discerns the hunger among the people and Jesus states, “You give them something to eat.” What follows are some improvements which can be made to HB 1035
Therefore, as we discuss this bill in the upcoming legislature let us all remember to seek to participate in a beloved community. In a community in which individuals who are hungry and thirsty experience satisfaction and the community works passionately to act compassionately and steward our resources well.
I am coming up on seven years of living in Conway and these seven years have been associated with a beautiful neighborhood called Oakwood Village Trailer Park. In these seven years, I by God’s grace and the help of others within the park and outside the park, work to communicate the goodness that exists within the community. Granted, I acknowledge the difficulties which exist in the community. I understand for many who live in Conway, Oakwood is nothing more than the out of sight, out of mind black hole for everything dark, sinful, and criminal. There is this apparent delusion, a prejudice, a self-righteousness that permeates some of our citizens who believe and thus speak of Oakwood as the only place in Conway where meth cooks, prostitution walks, domestic abuse thunders, and marriages fall apart. I don’t know what is worse, the man who walks naked and knows it or the man who believes he is in a three piece suit and in reality is naked as well.
This past week I had a very heartfelt conversation with one of my board members’ who has been a long term resident in the Oakwood Village Trailer Park. She came to me very angry and upset because she had been told by two different people who live outside of Oakwood, “every other trailer is a crack house.” She was visibly upset and rightly so. The statements made to her were condescending and ignorant statements that cast a broad brush across a community of people that have become family and friends. This is that [filtered word] which continues to paint a picture of people in a false reality. Now you may be upset at the fact I used such an adjective to describe the comments but I hope that you would not miss the forest because of that small tree. The fact of the matter is we have this propensity to dehumanize men and women who are fighting to live one day at a time.
Are there drug problems in Oakwood? Sure. Are there unsavory type individuals who take advantage of weaker individuals so that can achieve some semblance of power and prestige on the streets? Yes. At the same time in Oakwood there are men and women who are valuable contributors to our city. They serve at Hendrix College; build our new homes as brick layers and hangers of drywall. They are the men who have an entrepreneurial spirit and this spring will beat the streets to do lawn care. They are the men and women who hope to get a call from the Conway School District so they can work as a substitute in the kitchen serving meals to our kids. They are the women who are stay at home mothers with their young babies and teach them new words like “copasetic.” They are humans-good or bad-made in the image and likeness of God.
I appeal to that fact because I live in the Bible belt. Our city has its number of church facilities and by implication attendees on various days of the week. We have read Genesis 1:27. Since that is the case, I make an appeal to those who open a bible, attend a church, or volunteer at some type of aid organization; remember every person you see is an image bearer of God. It doesn’t matter if they live in a different place or make a different amount of income; none of us have the authority to denigrate other. If we cannot be part of the solution, it would be better for us to remain silent and not be another part of the problem.
We can all be better people.