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Baltimore has another fit of panhandler anxiety

Here we go again, with another call for a crackdown on panhandlers in Baltimore. The City Council, which recently provided millions of dollars in public financing for the big private development at Harbor Point — offices, hotels, residences — is considering legislation to make it tougher for the penniless to beg on our sidewalks.

A council committee already gave the crackdown the thumbs-up.


Maybe if panhandlers could afford a lobbyist or a public-relations company — or maybe if they took up a collection now and then and made campaign donations — they, too, could benefit from the council's generous tendencies. Perhaps someone needs to inform the indigent beggars of Baltimore that they need to do their panhandling within an Enterprise Zone. Maybe then they would be in the council's good graces; they might even get a subsidy.

But, of course, that's absurd. Panhandlers have no supporters, except for the few hardworking, unappreciated do-gooders who work in the realm of the homeless, the sick, the addicted and the mentally ill.

Panhandlers offend. They are hard on the eyes. People fear them. People are annoyed by them. They make people who are spending money in Baltimore, having a good time, feel a little guilty. And they anger people who think of them as lazy frauds.

Among those calling for a crackdown is City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who lives in Harborview, where some of the townhouses sell for more than $1 million. Spector objects to the panhandlers who work median strips, asking motorists for handouts. That's already against the law, but Spector says police don't enforce it.

"This is a safety issue," she told me.

But in a Baltimore Sun article on this issue, Spector also complained about panhandlers asking for money from people while they dine on sidewalks outside restaurants or feed parking meters or wait in line to get into a club or tourist attraction. "This is atrocious behavior. This isn't targeted toward anybody, but bad behavior is bad behavior," she said.

(Wednesday afternoon, Spector tried to distance herself from the issue of panhandlers bothering diners and tourists, saying that aspect of the crackdown was being pushed by the Downtown Partnership. That's true, but in her interview with a Sun reporter, Spector expressed concerns about panhandlers infringing on the Baltimore dining experience, including spitting in customers' food.)

We've been here before. Baltimore has had fits of panhandler anxiety several times over my 36 years here.

In the 1990s, we hit a critical mass of complaints. Downtown property and business owners thought there were just too many homeless and hungry people showing up on Franklin Street to have lunch at the original location of Our Daily Bread, the busy soup kitchen operated by Catholic Charities. And a lot of ODB's regulars lingered on the sidewalks.

Panhandlers were blamed for all sorts of things — aggressive begging, shoplifting, car break-ins, empty retail space on Charles Street. So new laws were enacted, and some wealthy white men, including the Orioles' majority owner, Peter Angelos, orchestrated the move of ODB to the other side of the Jones Falls Expressway, on the Fallsway near Baltimore's Penitentiary Gulch, and with it the evacuation of hundreds of poor, mostly black men.

Some people were offended by the ODB move, but it was smart and effective. Our Daily Bread became an employment center, offering services to the jobless as well as the homeless and the hungry.

But we keep seeing new waves of homeless, hungry and mentally ill, and they do not confine themselves to the Fallsway. They wander. They end up on the downtown streets and attractions that are a source of civic pride, from Harborplace to Camden Yards. They are on the east side and the west side. They walk up and ask you for a handout.

There are all sorts of reasons for this — in my experience, mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse are persistent factors — but the main reason is simple: They run out of money.

One in four Baltimoreans lives below the federal poverty level. Unemployment in the city is higher than in the rest of the state — above 10 percent. For all the claims that we're a welfare state, Maryland's direct benefits to single women with two children equal only about 35 percent of the federal poverty level; what constitutes "welfare" today — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, it's called — comes to $576 a month.

We do not have direct cash assistance for able-bodied men. They are expected to work, if they can find it. And finding a job that pays a living wage is a challenge.

Even with Tuesday's good news that will move into a new distribution center in Southeast Baltimore — with more than $40 million in tax credits from the city and state — comes this reality: The jobs will pay $11.50 to $12.50 an hour. An Amazon vice president calls those "great wages," but those "great wages" equal, on the high end, about $25,000 a year. That's just above the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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