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.”