My testimony at today’s public hearing on the panhandler’s ordinance

My name is Bob Waldrop and I speak in opposition to the proposed restrictions on the free speech rights of panhandlers and charitable solicitors.

The claim is made that this is a public safety issue. Yet, nobody has been hurt in Oklahoma City soliciting for charity or panhandling from these center medians. Stories circulate about assaults and aggressiveness, but that is a different issue. Assault is a matter of public safety, and it’s an issue because we have the same number of police today that we had 20 years ago, and more of our police are assigned these days to special squads. So we don’t have many cops on beats, they’re all out responding to 911 calls. A useful response to these problems would be to figure out a way to get police patrolling on bicycles in the areas where these kinds of incidents are most likely to occur.

In the public conversation about this, someone said, “Oklahoma City has plenty of charitable resources.” That it is not true. My organization, the Oscar Romero Catholic worker House, delivers food every month to about 350 households who don’t have transportation. I stop taking requests for deliveries on the third day of the month. If I had the people to do the deliveries and the food, I could deliver to a thousand households, and this would still only be a fraction of the need.

Contrary to some claims in the public conversation on this issue, it’s not easy to be poor in Oklahoma City. I often tell poor people that they would be much better off if they left Oklahoma City and went somewhere else, to a city with a decent public transportation system and a state which went with the federal expansion of Medicaid.

In this context, the speech of panhandlers is the last gasp of the social safety net. It is the cry of those who are the weakest among us. Much has been made about how some panhandlers are allegedly “scamming” the system, whatever that means. Some even claim that panhandling is a way to “make a lot of money.” Obviously, these claims are made by people who have never stood all day in the hot sun, the freezing cold, or the driving rain, asking people for money. I think these urban myths are stories we tell ourselves so that we feel less bad about ignoring the economic structures of sin that are the reason we have so many poor people.

Instead of picking on panhandlers, why don’t we do something about the laws and regulations that prevent people from becoming micro-entrepreneurs and starting their own part time businesses that with work could grow into full time jobs? One of the tragedies of this proposal is that it takes direct aim at the one local program that fosters an entrepreneurial approach to poverty, the Curbside Chronicle.

The economic cost of this law will have to include the cost of fighting the legal challenges, because there will be people lining up to violate this law, who will go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary in defense of our First Amendment rights to speech and religion.

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