Panhandler hearing draws more mixed views

FLINT TWP. — An advisory committee convened by the Flint Township Board held a public hearing last week to take public comment on a proposed panhandlers ordinance that would ban all street soliciting including by charities.

The proposed ordinance passed a first reading by the township board more than two months ago but hit pause when some objectors attended the second reading last month to complain that the ban would negatively affect charities such as the Old Newsboys annual street collection to purchase Christmas gifts for disadvantaged children.

The 12-member advisory group is planning two more meetings before making a recommendation to the township board. A meeting on Sept. 17 was to discuss the legal ramifications of the ordinance with legal advisors. A third and final meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 1 at the township administration building. The meetings are open to the public.

Only seven people signed up to speak at the public hearing last week.

“Let’s get rid of these people,” urged Jim McClung, a township resident, who argued that most of the regular beggars in the township are not needy. This prolonged debate over the ordinance is “making a mountain out of a molehill,’’ he said.

“I am just tired of looking at these people begging for money,’’ he said. “Ninety percent of them are not homeless, they have been followed and have nice cars, some nicer than I have.”

He said one of them recently was observed relieving herself in the bushes.

“This makes the township look bad,’’ he said. He advocated finding a way to help legitimate charities continue fundraising efforts.

Other speakers advocated showing compassion for the beggars.

One Clayton Township woman said she regularly gives money to a pregnant panhandler in front of Wal-mart, She spoke in support of the Old Newsboys. But she also admitted feeling intimated by a woman who blocked in her car at a gas station while asking for money.

Joel Florida, a retired Flint police officer and member of the Olds Newsboys board, spoke of his impoverished childhood and welcome gifts from Old Newsboys.

“Let’s show some compassion to these people,” he said.” Many don’t choose to be out there.”

He offered a leaflet listing social service agencies that should be given to the street beggars instead of ticketing them.

Others said they have seen panhandlers turn down job offers and throw away helpful leaflets.

Kevin Stiff, a township business owner and resident, speculated that the begging business is pretty lucrative and tax-free. He said he watched the pregnant beggar in front of Wal-Mart collect about 17 handouts in 40 minutes. Even at $1 per gift, that could add up to a sizeable amount in a year of tax-free money, he said.

“I have to pay taxes on my business and my land,’’ he said. He advocated educating the public to stop giving the beggars money and the problem would resolve itself.

He noted that any number of organized agencies and churches already exist to help people in need.

David Halstead, a township resident and former business owner, also noted that begging has increasingly become a lucrative, tax-free enterprise. At that same time, he said he did not want to see ordinance that would penalize legitimate charities and “honest people.” He said it seems like there should be enough laws on the books to find a way to control those who have turned begging in a lifestyle.

William Newsom, a member of the advisory board and business owner, commented that the panel is looking for a way to balance the conflict between showing compassion and doing business. Some business owners are starting to wonder how much business is being driven away by the proliferation of panhandlers, he said.

His goal he said is to find a solution that gets needy people the proper help without adversely affecting business owners.

“There is a conflict between business and compassion and we are looking for something in the middle,’” he said.

Gerald and Lori Roberts, township residents, said they have befriended a beggar in front of McDonald’s on Linden Road and feel it is their Christian duty. They have bought him food, provided sleeping gear, and offered him a job doing yard work at their home.

“You have to help the ones that don’t need it to help the ones who do,” Lori Roberts said in response to arguments that most beggars are frauds and are not really needy.

Pastor Kevin Spencer, a member of the advisory panel, said he has compassion for beggars because he was homeless and hungry himself as a teenager.

“We are not without compassion but have to come up with the best (solution) for all involved,’ he said.

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