OUR VIEW: Continuing the conversation on poverty

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

A panhandler sits on the drive at the Crossings near Bonita Lakes in October. The Meridian City Council voted Tuesday night to approve two ordinances to address panhandling.

Take almost any interstate exit into Meridian, head up Highway 39 during the evening drive home or make a shopping trip to Bonita Lakes and you are likely to be confronted by a panhandler.

Their signs contain words such as homeless, hungry or veteran to trigger your sympathy. You don’t know whether to believe them. You may reach for your wallet. You may divert your eyes.

Meridian’s City Council and administration now have their eyes on the issue, but trying to pass a law to block panhandlers would be as fraught with danger as crossing Highway 39 during peak traffic.

Panhandling is considered protected under the First Amendment as free speech and courts across the country consistently have struck down laws prohibiting the practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court said in Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015) that laws that discriminate against speech on their face or in their purpose are considered content-based and are subject to strict scrutiny, according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia at Middle Tennessee State University.

The American Civili Liberties Union, with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, has campaigned against such laws across Mississippi.

We agree that panhandlers who solicit in the middle of highways with traffic speeding by is a clear danger to themselves and the people in the passing vehicles, and we’d like to see the practice end. But without a carefully worded law the city would likely face a potentially costly challenge.

We are also sympathetic to business owners who find trash and needles on their property and confront verbal abuse when they ask vagrants to move on.

Theft, vandalism and the city’s image are all valid concerns, too, and that needs to end. Placing blame through generalization, however, would be wrong. There are bad characters in all income brackets, employed or not. Weed out the trouble makers, but don’t blame an entire group.

Scruffy-looking people make easy targets, but ultimately it’s impossible to outlaw poverty.

Any of us can fall into poverty or even homelessness from causes such as lost jobs, catastrophic illnesses, death of caregivers, broken relationships, mental illness and substance abuse, as we reported this summer.

There are many good people and groups around Meridian, helping our homeless population, including Christine Rainer and Alsane’s Mission, Fannie Johnson and L.O.V.E.’s Kitchen, Multi-County Community Service Agency, the Salvation Army, Wesley House and many other churches, faith-based and government organizations, as we wrote in an August editorial.

Richie McAlister, the city’s chief administrative officer, made the same point at Tuesday’s meeting, saying: "We have multiple outreach entities in the city and you have the ability to get three meals a day. At the same time, you also have the availability to have a bed at night.”

Comments such as “get a job” or “move them out of sight” are knee-jerk responses that won’t solve the problem.

The harder work is connecting people in need with food, shelter and an avenue to a better life while creating educational and work opportunities and a social structure that reduces the risk of falling into poverty in the first place.

Some may question whether the First Amendment protection of free speech is a proper protection for those panhandlers. But then, they have created this important conversation at City Hall and in the community.

How do we confront poverty in Meridian? We hope our community leaders continue the conversation and that we all join them.

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