Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

The battle over begging

Compassion | Cities and the ACLU squabble in court over panhandlers’ rights
by Rob Holmes
Posted 10/03/18, 01:59 pm

Pushback to anti-panhandling laws is growing, even in places with comparatively scant homelessness, like Iowa. Thousands of cities have “no soliciting” laws, and last month the American Civil Liberties Union challenged three Iowa communities on the grounds that ordinances against panhandling infringed on homeless residents’ freedom of expression.

The group also took aim at 31 Colorado cities in late August, sending letters demanding the repeal of ordinances that “prohibit peaceful, nonintrusive requests for charity,” said ACLU of Colorado staff attorney Rebecca Wallace.

Iowa and Colorado are only the latest states in a yearslong, multistate fight against such laws. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. The Town of Gilbert that temporary church signs are protected speech. Now the ACLU argues the reasoning from that case should apply to beggars’ requests for help. Since 2015, 25 legal cases against begging ordinances have succeeded, leading 31 cities to overturn their statutes.

Many who oppose giving to panhandlers argue it prolongs the recipient’s instability. The Atlantic’s 2011 article “Should You Give Money to Homeless People?” pointed to studies that show 6 in 10 homeless people admitted problems with drugs or alcohol, and career panhandlers spend most of their money the same day they earn it on short-term relief.

Last year, Pope Francis said giving to someone in need “is always right” and must be done by “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands,” according to the Catholic News Service. Like the earlier St. Francis, the pope puts the emphasis not on how the money is spent or what it alleviates, but on the relationship it can build and the selfishness it can tear down. He speaks from first-hand experience in his native Buenos Aires.

The Christian’s default position is to follow Christ in generosity, British Anglican priest John R.W. Stott wrote, but Jesus and the disciples aren’t recorded as ever giving money to the poor, though cloaks, tunics, loaves, and fishes were fair game.

John Piper in a 2013 Desiring God podcast also looked at giving to the needy as a “miracle” of compassion that overcomes our reflex of selfishness. But giving to the one who asks (Matthew 5:41) is not the only way to love, he says. Piper’s advice: If we have no time for anything else, at least give. “Then do more if you can,” he said, loving without giving money where money would only feed a bad habit.

Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee Detained migrant children in Homestead, Fla., in June

Kids in custody

The number of unaccompanied migrant children held in federal detention centers has risen this year to the highest levels ever. Despite the release of hundreds of children to the care of family or sponsors this past summer, federal shelters currently house 10,000 more children compared to May 2017—now a total of 12,800. More kids sit in detention because there is no one to legally release them to.

Sponsors, usually close relatives, often have no legal immigration status, and in June, the Trump administration announced a new vetting policy requiring potential sponsors, including parents, to provide their fingerprints, which may be shared with immigration authorities. The New York Times reported fewer relatives and friends have come forward since then to sponsor migrant children.

Central American migrant kids—mostly teenagers—are crossing the U.S. border at roughly the same numbers as in years before the Trump administration enacted policies earlier this year to discourage the flow. With its 100-plus shelters at or near capacity, the government is shifting children to a new border tent city in Tornillo, Texas, near El Paso, to house up to 3,800 kids waiting for a way out. —R.H.

Associated Press/Alabama Department of Corrections Associated Press/Alabama Department of Corrections Vernon Madison

Death row and dementia

One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first cases in its new session asks whether the state can execute a man for a crime he does not remember. Vernon Madison has spent three decades on death row for killing a police officer in 1985. Now at 67, Madison suffers extreme dementia. His attorney argues Alabama should not execute him when he cannot understand the reason.

The case highlights a problem facing the justice system: a growing population of elderly prisoners. The average time on death row increased from an average of six years and two months in 1984 to 16 years and six months in 2011, according to Bureau of Justice statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy typically cast the swing vote on death penalty cases, so as the confirmation debate over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh drags on, Madison’s case could be the term’s first split decision. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the state could execute Madison, and a 4-4 Supreme Court stalemate would affirm that decision. —Charissa Crotts

Padding the payroll

Amazon announced Tuesday a $15 minimum wage for all its workers. The raise is a prelude to its awaited unveiling later this year of the location for a $5 billion second headquarters (HQ2). All full- and part-time hires will benefit, affecting more than 250,000 U.S. employees and a 100,000 workers the company expects to hire for the Christmas season. Long criticized for its workers’ average $28,446 annual pay, the online giant will now press Congress to follow its lead by more than doubling the federal minimum wage, said Jay Carney, senior vice president of corporate affairs, Reuters reported.

Mark J. Perry, a scholar at American Enterprise Institute, noted that such mandated increases hurt the poor. Companies forced to abandon market-based minimums respond by axing unskilled jobs, leaving low-wage workers with fewer routes for moving out of poverty, according to a 2014 Congressional Budget Office study. —R.H.

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Rob Holmes

Rob is a World Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD correspondent.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 10/05/2018 07:59 pm

    Hm, the company that's known for using drones and computers for everything possible wants to institute a minimum wage for those humans they do employ. And they want to force all the other businesses to follow their lead through their lobbying efforts. Sounds like a pretty shrewd business move to me.