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Ordinance was a bid to sweep Boise’s problems out of sight

Anne-Allen_White-Bckgrnd_WEBThe mostly rejected Boise panhandling ordinance reminded me of a children’s story I once read about an old woman who never drew the curtains to let the sunshine into her home.

Allowing beams of direct light into the room, she said, attracted dust. Despite the protests of family members, who didn’t want to creep around in dimly lit surroundings, she insisted that the curtains stay closed.

But the dust was there anyway; the sunlight just made it more visible. She could not make that connection.

The panhandling ordinance was designed along similar lines. The panhandlers are out on the Boise sidewalks for a variety of reasons. Some are there because they have an untreated or inadequately treated mental illness. Some are struggling with substance abuse. Some are out there because they live a nomadic existence while they’re looking for work. And some are probably people who can work, but aren’t.

The panhandlers have become more visible in recent years in Idaho’s largest city. They attract attention with their cardboard signs, their outstretched hands, their leashed dogs (and birds and cats), musical instruments, and babies and toddlers.

Panhandlers are a sometimes depressing reminder that however far we like to think we’ve come as a society, a large segment of people don’t or can’t fit in.

To downtown merchants, the panhandlers are a deterrent to customers who don’t want to be asked for money while they’re window shopping or sitting outside.

The city’s response to this problem is almost childish in its simplicity. The city ordinance that U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge nixed in part on Jan. 2 addressed the surface of the problem – the requests for money – but the City Council didn’t address the deeper problem behind the increasing homelessness and poverty in Idaho and elsewhere.

In doing so, the City Council acted as the dust mote lady did – blaming the sunshine for illuminating the problem and trying to close the curtains to make it less visible.

The City of Boise doesn’t have the resources on its own to find mental health care or substance abuse treatment for all of its most vulnerable residents. It’s up to the state and the city together to address this need in Idaho’s largest city. Expanding Medicaid would be one step in alleviating some of the misery caused by untreated mental illness. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Medicaid is the most important public health program for mental health treatment.

Expanding Medicaid, as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, would help provide access to care for people who now have nowhere to go and are medicating themselves.

Medicaid expansion will be decided on a state level, and it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen this year, at least. State officials are also considering the establishment of crisis centers in Boise, Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene that would provide short-term mental health and substance abuse treatment.

In the meantime, Boise could certainly do more than trying to ban the most outward manifestation of poverty and dysfunction in its downtown area. The city took a lot of the credit for starting Allumbaugh House, which provides limited behavioral health care. Now it’s time for more leadership along the same lines. The mayor and the City Council were elected to solve problems, not hide them behind the curtains.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.

3 comments

  1. I disagree that my statement above was a broad generalization about the community of homeless people. I specifically made a statement about panhandlers, and not homeless people in general. My understanding is still that there is help for people needing food, clothing etc, and that panhandling is only necessary for people who don’t want to accept that help.

    Whether I get to judge how people earn a living is irrelevant to this conversation. I don’t judge them for what they choose to do for themselves. I do have a right to advocate for social policies that 1. Avoids enabling them and 2. Creates an environment conducive to prosperity (which helps everyone). I don’t have to judge someone to decide not to enable them. I feel very lucky in my life, and I don’t have any idea as to what kind of luck any other person has had. As such, I am strongly against allowing panhandling, and strongly for giving money to charitable organizations that help the homeless.

    Regardless as to whether there is enough organized charitable help out there, panhandling is only likely to worsen the problem of homelessness. If you are homeless, you need the right kind of assistance, not just *any* kind of assistance.

  2. Matthew,

    Have you spoken with someone experiencing homelessness or those who work with the homeless community to corroborate your idea? Your statement is a broad generalization of a community that is brought together from a myriad of backgrounds and experiences, mostly those with mental illness, veterans, and families who are down on their luck.

    Besides, who are we to judge how an individual earns a living? Being able to solicit is a First Amendment issue (free speech) that the City of Boise tried to silence, and they were rightly reminded of it’s duty to uphold the Constitution during its recent lawsuit against the ordinance.

    To better understand the true needs of the homeless community, and to fight the growing (misguided/incorrect) sentiment against these individuals, I recommend you connect with the Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition, a group of homeless service providers working educate the public about homelessness in Boise. You can visit their website at http://www.homelesscoalitionboise.com/.

  3. I would like for you to check your facts about panhandlers. You claim that the people Boiseans see panhandling come from all the varieties of the down and out, but I have read many articles that would make that claim a mistaken one. According to the articles I have seen, panhandlers are unwilling to receive help from where it is available because they don’t want to meet the conditions of that help. So, they go to the broader public to see if they can sucker them into enabling them.

    Yes, we need to do a better job. Absolutely. But, I don’t necessarily think that the down and out we see panhandling are a symptom of that need. From what I understand, the down and out we see panhandling are generally the incorrigibles. These are not the mentally ill, nor are they the ones who are trying to find work, but can’t.

    I think you are well-meaning, but I don’t think it is as simple as *you* think it is. Furthermore, I believe allowing panhandling makes the problems worse, since it seems to be an enabling dynamic.