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Creating the city we live in: why I spoke up at a recent City Commission meeting

I attended my first Commission Meeting two weeks ago, joining others who were either voicing concerns or supporting the proposed ordinance to control where people who beg can panhandle in our city.

After attending my first City Commissioners meeting two weeks ago, I came away with a new respect for every Commission in every town ever. They have the patience of Job and poker faces to rival Las Vegas gamers. 

Citizens are given three minutes of speaking time where one can speak on whatever issue one likes. And boy, people do!

I attended the meeting because of my concern about the possible new panhandling laws and the tone they would set for our city. After hearing about the issue on the radio I got online and looked up Grand Rapids City Commissioners meeting. I found a list of upcoming meetings and where they are. Most meetings are held on the 9th floor of City Hall with some out in the neighborhoods. The next City Commission meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 3, at 7:00 p.m. at the Grand Rapids University Prep Academy (512 South Division Avenue). The Commission is expected to vote on the panhandling ordinance at this meeting, though it is possible the vote will be postponed as Commissioners continue to consider the issue

The audience at the meeting I attended on May 20 was a mix of GVSU students observing, neighborhood groups, business people, nonprofit leaders, pastors and concerned citizens.

When I arrived I began to get nervous even though I knew what I wanted to say. I quickly jotted notes on the back of my paper, with the key points and problems I wanted to remember like "don't criminalize poverty," "there's enough laws already," and my personal story of befriending a young woman who was panhandling.

By the time it was my turn to get up and speak, I was mentally ready to go and hyped up. But too hyped from all the sitting. I've spoken to various groups before for longer periods of time, but my desire to really convey the passion of what I wanted to say coupled with being a bit nervous about getting it just right for the Mayor and Commissioners left my voice shaky. My bullet points kept me on track and I was able to get out all the key points I'd wanted to say. I was about to thank them for listening to me what my clock had run out and Mayor Heartwell politely thanked me for my time.

Afterwards, I went up front to compliment them on their patience. Christian Borg, Administrative Analyst for the City of Grand Rapids, graciously thanked me for being a concerned, involved citizen and even took the time to encourage me to mail or email all of them my statements so they'd have my concerns in writing. After a full three hour meeting, I was further impressed by his enthusiasm and in taking the time to explain to me how to be more involved rather than rushing me off. I don't know about you, but when it's 10 p.m. and I've just sat through a three hour meeting, I'd want to jet.

At least five people used their public comment time to speak on the panhandling issue. Those in favor of the new laws had the below concerns.

Panhandlers can be aggressive and obnoxious/annoying/harassing.

There are already laws in place for aggressive behavior. In these kinds of events, the police are available to deal with harassment. Harassment isn't particular to people who beg. Women get harassed by men who aren't begging all the time. It's important to not confuse begging with harassment. Just like not all men are ogres to women, not all panhandlers harass people.

It's bad for business.

The ordinance was proposed by Johnny Brann on behalf of the West Leonard Business Association. He and his fellow business owners made a complaint about how their customers feel after encountering panhandlers. They are in the business of cleaning up the West Side and find the beggars unsightly and disturbing.

The West Leonard Business Association wants to beautify the street. The raw need of people begging isn't pretty. Raw need questions our humanity and our commerce.

I have no problem with policing aggression on the streets. But just because someone who's poor and dirty walks up to you and speaks, does not mean they are being aggressive. The streets should be safe for everyone- including the most marginalized in our society. They should be able to ask for help without fear of getting arrested.

"With such great efforts being made to clean up our streets, it’s a shame to come off the 131 highway at Leonard Street and be accosted by beggars or to look up under the bridges and see their camps," said Brann at the meeting.

But begging does not automatically mean accosting.

If you want to clean up your streets and make better district, help the beggars. A city that truly wants to improve itself will not shuttle the poor and the beggars out of the nice or developing neighborhoods, but find ways to help and include them. Just because a business association has decided they want to pretty up their streets doesn't mean that the people they consider a nuisance or unsightly need to be displaced elsewhere.

Panhandlers are just going to use the money on drugs and alcohol anyway.

Yes, many- but not all- who panhandle are addicts. This does not mean they aren't people. And this does not mean that they don't still have to eat. If you don't want to give, don't. No one is making you give. If you are afraid to give money, offer food. Better yet, also find out their name and offer to bring them a coffee or a meal the next day.

It is naive to think that someone who's panhandling on a regular basis doesn't have a complex set of problems that would boggle most of us. Instead of needing a panhandler with a heart of gold to give to and make us feel good for saving them, we need to go in, eyes wide open, acknowledging all the complexities of what they go through being on the street. And then, rather than judge them for their street survival skills, we should have compassion and treat them as the fellow humans they are.

They don't want to work.

This may or may not be true. But standing at a street corner for hours on end in all sorts of weather is its own kind of work and not a sort of fortitude most of us have.

It's dangerous at intersections/highway ramps.

It can be dangerous. There are already laws in place for this.

It's interesting to note that this is perceived to be a problem with poverty in the city of Grand Rapids. There's a feeling by those coming in from the surrounding towns that "Ooh, look at those poor people panhandling in the city!" with a sort of tsk-tsking attitude that makes them glad they live elsewhere.

I know that there are panhandlers that live in Grand Rapids. I have visited their camps. But of the five I have personally stopped to talk to, every last one had ridden the bus in from out of town. Why? Because the panhandling laws that Grand Rapids is considering passing have already been passed in their town.

This begs the question, "Who is my neighbor?"

Maybe if those in surrounding cities did a better job at caring for their neighbors, Grand Rapids wouldn't have to. I have met people from Walker, Kentwood, and Wyoming.

So you can drive into Grand Rapids from Walker, judge the city and the panhandlers and return to Walker, glad that issue isn't in your city, all the while completely oblivious to the fact the a couple of the panhandlers you drove by live in your very own town.

You don't see poor people on the street corner in surrounding towns because they have passed some ordinances against it, not because these towns doesn't have very poor people and not because they do a better job at caring for all of their citizens.

At this point then, it comes down to this - do we want to hide our poor people and pretend they don't exist, or do we want to acknowledge each other and help each other?

How we treat people who panhandle says more about us than it says about them. The great numbers of us who don't have to beg need to remember that we are not just deciding whether someone has the right to ask for help, we are determining laws that decide whether we have the ability to give.

This ordinance will be voted on this Tuesday, June 3. There is still time to let your City Commissioners know how you feel on this issue to help them determine how they should vote, as representatives of their constiuents.

Call or email your city commissioner today. Consider attending the City Commission meeting Tuesday night to speak up. This time the meeting is Tuesday, June 3, at 7:00 p.m. at the Grand Rapids University Prep Academy (512 South Division Avenue).

Maybe you've done the rounds at city commissioners meetings before, or maybe like me, this will be your inaugural visit. If you're worried your voice will shake like mine or you'll have a few too many "ummms," come anyway.

It's up to us to create the city we want to live in.

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