Panhandling in Portland is a symptom; poverty, the problem

No aspect of urban poverty strikes the same emotional nerve as panhandling.

Record numbers of homeless people crowding into shelters doesn’t do it. People lining up outside soup kitchens doesn’t do it. Reports of children showing up for school without having enough of the right food they need to be ready to learn just get well-meaning shrugs.

But the sight of someone with his hand out – especially when he is standing in a median strip with a sign – people feel compelled to act.

And that feeling of unease is what this debate is really about. It’s not about concern about the safety of the panhandlers.

Thirty homeless people died on Portland’s streets last year, none of them from being hit by a car while standing in a median strip. If the city were driven to improve their safety, there are other, much more pressing needs.

And it’s not about the safety of drivers. It’s already illegal to threaten and harass people, and you don’t need a new ordinance to prosecute a panhandler who crosses the line. No one is obliged to give money to a panhandler or interact with one in any way.

This is less a matter of public safety than it is about frustration. Six years after the real estate bubble burst, bringing down the nation’s banking system, we are still struggling with a slow-growing economy that offers little opportunity for people, especially those competing for low-skill jobs. As a service center community, Portland is a magnet for people who need help, but this is not a problem just for Portland.

Even if the signs only show up at intersections in and around Maine’s biggest city, this is a statewide problem. And reports from cities around the country show that it is a national problem as well.

Removing panhandlers from intersections might make the roads into Portland look a little better to some people, but it won’t create jobs or build affordable housing. It won’t pay for mental health services or substance abuse treatment. It won’t provide quality child care or early education programs.

Drivers on Portland’s streets are right to be frustrated, but it’s not the people with hand-made signs who have created the problem. If the City Council is going to have a response to this crisis, it should keep doing what it can to address the sources of this problem, not just the symptoms.