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.”
On Monday June 15, I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Conway Ministry Center which is attempting to use a portion of their facility as a crisis shelter. The specific purpose of the crisis shelter is "to provide temporary shelter to men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness, as well as providing case management services to assist families in achieving long term stability" (Application for Conditional Use; May 21, 2015).
In our city, individuals, businesses, or groups have to appear before the Conway Planning Commission to seek approval of a conditional use application. Once approved, the application is forwarded to the Conway City Council for final approval. The Conway Planning Commission ran a very orderly meeting allowing the Conway Ministry Center Board Chairman ten minutes to offer a presentation. Afterwards, those in favor of the application were allowed two minutes to offer any support. I was proud of the men and women who articulated their support for the crisis shelter and provided perspective of those who experience homelessness. The Conway Planning Commission offered time for those who objected to the conditional use application. Those who objected were just as clear and articulate about their position, yet it was in the articulation of their objections and some comments by the commissioners which stirred my soul.
The conditional use application was approved with the exception of one dissenting vote and will be referred to our next Conway City Council meeting on June 23, 2015. While I was happy the commission did the right thing I was disheartened by the stereotype which was cast over the homeless and I believe impacted the conditions put on the Conway Ministry Center.
Criminalizing the Homeless
Anyone can make statistics say whatever he or she wants to prove his or her point. One of the objectors continually appealed to statistics by the CDC and the Conway Police Department concerning crime. Now he never specified what population was studied in relationship to crime, nor what types of crimes. He simply presented his information as if the homeless were the purveyors of crime and as such allowing the Conway Ministry Center to open a crisis shelter would invite more criminal activity. Additionally, homeless persons apparently have no type of identification according to his testimony. In addition, this population of people are not willing to give background information on themselves, they are drug abusers, and a large percentage of these men and women are unwilling to fix their situation. Other testimony was given by another business owner in which she stated she feared for the safety of her employees who carry sensitive pharmaceutical medications. She feared they could possibly be harmed or robbed of those medications if more homeless persons were in the area. I commend the business owner for her concern for her employees, but what are her fears based on?
Why do I say "criminalizing the homeless?" Criminalizing a behavior, person, or group simply means to treat one as a criminal. As I sat in the meeting and listened to the objections and the proposed recommendations by some commission members, it appeared as if being a homeless person automatically qualified you as being suspicious or capable of doing harm to another individual. I was proud of one commission member who spoke up and said, "Can we remember that these are human beings?" A blanket stereotype was thrown over a group of persons who were considered guilty until they could prove otherwise. This informed conditions which I believe to be initially burdensome on the Conway Ministry Center to include hiring security staff and video surveillance. These conditions are not cheap. (If you are retired cop or Soldier, I would encourage you to contact the Conway Ministry Center about volunteering your experience.)
Look I get it. Many people do not want the poor and the homeless within their living situation or business establishments. They hurt property values, drive up crime, and are lazy individuals who just refuse to fix their situation.
In my speech I asked, "How do you explain within the last eight years three UCA administrators, three nonprofit directors, and a sitting judge, all who committed crimes and were in middle to upper income brackets?" Enrollment continues, nonprofits continue, and judges continue to be elected."
Somehow these income brackets are never criminalized.
What I am trying to say is a person's or groups experience should not deter him, her, or them from knowing compassion and the reaffirmation of their dignity as men and women made in the image and likeness of God.
Conway Going Forward
Since I have lived in Conway, I feel as if I live in a schizophrenic city at times. We are littered with religious organizations which proclaim the necessity for good works but in the development, planning, and growth of the city there appears to be little consideration for the poor and homeless. The city has an eagerness to build Central Landing, Lewis Crossing, and maybe an ice skating rink but what we need is a plan for those who are the least in our city. I perceive if there is a disconnect in what people hear in their religious instruction and how they should view their neighbor in the city. We need a coordinated plan that considers all of our citizens.
We have the opportunity to become a great city with a greater demonstration of compassion. The same eagerness for malls and recreations centers needs to influence our compassion for others. We can become a great city when we support the men, women, and children who are in need of a basic human right of a safe, suitable, and secure place to lay their heads. A suitable living conditions contributes to our human flourishing. There is something experiential about coming into a four wall place and feeling a sense of rest. Our treatment of the homeless will be a direct reflection of what we as a city truly believe about the dignity and worth of all human beings.
If we are to be a great city then let eagerness fuel our compassion to see people flourish regardless of their situation. Let us run with joy into the suffering of others. Let us humble ourselves and bind the wounds of the homeless until they have the opportunity in small and large ways to demonstrate that same compassion to others.