I was relatively lucky to graduate from law school in 1986. The U.S. economy and employment rates were growing. Law firms were expanding and hiring, and increasing the opportunities for all law graduates. I took a job working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.
By the early 1990s, the economy had turned down. Unemployment was rising. When I came home to visit my parents in northern New Jersey, I still tried to get into New York City to meet a friend, see a game, or catch a show. That usually meant driving across the George Washington Bridge, and down the Harlem River and FDR Drives. If I was going to midtown, I might get off at 63rd Street.
It was a prime location for a squeegee man.
Southbound traffic getting off the Drive would be stopped by a traffic light at the intersection of 63rd and York, leaving a line of idling cars and their passengers, a captive market for a squeegee man’s pitch. The essence of it was, I am down on my luck, but I haven’t given up. I’m not looking for a handout. I am doing what I can.
In the beginning, the appeal often paid a good dividend, as motorists were charmed by the combination of can-do presumptuousness, humor and initiative.
But it evolved into something more sinister. As the squeegee men proliferated, their pitch became less of an appeal and more of a veiled threat. Without waiting for your agreement, they would start spritzing your windshield with their spray bottle. Whereas the car had seemed like a comfortable, safe place, it began to feel like a trap.
Squeegee men were an issue in the 1993 New York City mayoral campaign between Rudolph Giuliani and David Dinkins. Giuliani promised to improve New Yorkers’ quality of life by cracking down on petty crime and nuisances like panhandlers and squeegee men. Dinkins claimed he was already doing so. Giuliani won, served two terms, and did a lot to clean up New York.
These days, we are in the sixth year of a recession. The economy is struggling. Unemployment and homelessness are high.
As I drive around Portland, most major intersections are being worked by at least one and, more often, several panhandlers displaying handwritten cardboard signs. The busiest intersections, like the one at Franklin Street and Marginal Way, appear to be worked by teams that meet and confer in nearby lots. My personal response is inconsistent. Sometimes I give. Most times I do not.
Last May, Portland’s Downtown District was considering ways to discourage panhandling and got criticized for being insensitive.
Last July, at the request of the Police Department, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee proposed an ordinance that would have prohibited panhandlers from standing on city streets and median strips. Some residents and advocates opposed the ordinance on the grounds that it would make the vulnerable feel unwelcome, would infringe their right of free speech, and their right to make a little money. The ordinance was defeated, 6-3.
I believe in limited government. That includes a social safety net for people who cannot provide for themselves. But I don’t want government support to become a permanent dependence. I want people, who are able, to try to provide for themselves by doing something productive.
Last I checked, Portland seemed to have a workfare program. Under workfare, able-bodied people are supposed to work in exchange for the general assistance that they receive. In the process, they receive education and training that can help them obtain employment. The city has lots that needs doing and fewer employees to do it.
How about using some of the energy that is being expended on our street corners?