Out in the hinterlands, calls for consolidation are undercut when Memphis city government can’t even manage to get the basics right, such as enforcing panhandling laws in downtown Memphis.
We’ve not written lately about the ever-present and ever-aggravating panhandling plague in downtown Memphis, because downtown resident and veteran blogger Paul Ryburn has been doing such an impressive job of reporting on the dimensions of this problem and creating a network of people reporting on the most grievous offenders.
Best of all, Mr. Ryburn has demolished the nagging notion that the problems really aren’t that bad and don’t really have any consequences for downtown Memphis.
As a result of the Ryburn campaign, the examples continue to pile up – parking lot scams where panhandlers pose as attendants to take money, the parking lot attendant who curses and excretes anti-gay screed at passers-by and the convention-goers who’ll take Memphis off their list because of problems including in-your-face, intimidating panhandling and public urination.
It’s strange. No matter how many new police officers are hired, no matter how many new crime-fighting programs are started and no matter how assertive the political rhetoric is, city government seems incapable of just enforcing the laws on the books that are designed to protect downtown quality of life.
The price of indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists. We tried to be philosophical this year, but it’s just too hard when the problem often takes up residence on our front steps and we have on occasion had the pleasure of even cleaning up human feces.
The FAQ’s on the Center City Commission website clarifies behavior that is illegal — when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; when begging is done in a group of two or more people; when it is perceived as a threat; when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; when someone is touched by a panhandler; and when false or misleading solicitations are used.
There’s nothing mentioned about feces, but we assume that’s at least a health department violation.
To set the record straight, this is not a problem with homeless people. The majority of them, probably less than five percent according to research, panhandle. Rather, it is an attack on behavior of a few who devalue and demean the common space that we collectively share.
Other cities are making progress. This week, the Nashville City Council passed a law prohibiting aggressive panhandling. It makes it illegal to panhandle after dark or near ATM’s, sidewalk cafes, business entrances, bus stops or schools.
Of course, as we’ve learned in Memphis, a law on the books means absolutely nothing unless the police department plans to enforce it. Nashville is lucky. There, the police chief has been pushing for the law and promised a crackdown on panhandling as a priority of his department.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati conducted a quarterly census, passed laws against panhandling and removes camp sites; and other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta (on which the Nashville law was modeled), Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Protect And Serve
Because of our apathetic police department, the Center City Commission finally had to step in recently with plans for a pilot program that will hire four security officers who will patrol downtown looking for quality of life violations. We’d hope that MPD would be so ashamed that it finally gets serious, but we wouldn’t bet on it.
As we’ve written before, it’s a serious indictment of city government that an agency like Center City Commission has to step in and provide the kinds of services that would seem to be the normal expectations of downtown citizens who pay their city taxes for what seems like a basic service.
Of course, the Center City Commission is already experienced in standing in for city government and shouldering its responsibilities. A few years ago, it was determined that downtown Memphis needed $100 million in its infrastructure – sidewalks, alleys, streets and streetscape.
So how much was city government willing to invest in the downtown that so often is part of elected officials’ bragging rights? Nothing. And faced with the widening problems, the Center City Commission paid for $5 million in its own bonds to at least get started on the work.
As for the panhandling paradise that is Memphis, the word is out. Our city is widely known as the place to be, because of the lack of enforcement and the anything goes attitude.
In fact, a few weeks ago, we eve made the Dr. Phil television show. The subject was hobos who live along the river. It featured one man who abandoned his family and now lives along the riverbanks, begging for a living. The film showed his solitary figure walking over a bridge – the Auction Street bridge.
The show spotlighted his festive party with his fellow bums. The location: downtown Memphis. It was hardly the publicity that’ll attract visitors to Memphis.
If all politics is local, then surely it is true that all government is personal. For us, that personal government should start by upgrading the downtown experience by eliminating our ubiquitous panhandlers.