Mitch Albom - Detroit Free Press
Every day, on my way to work, I pass a man in old clothes and a cap. His name is James Scales, but he goes by "Cricket." He stands on a corner. Sometimes he holds a sign asking for help.
Cricket is homeless. I know this because I speak to him. And, yes, I give him money. I have done so at every encounter for at least five years. During that time, we've talked about sports, the weather -- and tougher things, like how he's been robbed or accosted at different places where he's tried to sleep.
I've told Cricket about shelter programs, but he's had bad experiences and shies away. This winter, I gave him a sleeping bag from the Empowerment Plan that doubles as a coat. You never saw a man so happy.
Cricket, who says he's 70 years old, is always polite. He says "thank you" and "God bless you." He often confesses, "I've been standing here for three hours, and you're the first person that's stopped for me."
There is an invisible underclass. We walk past them when we exit ballgames and concerts, we step by them as they crouch against walls. Most of us ignore them. Some of us are bothered by them.
And now we want to treat them as criminals.
Legislation for the wrong reasons
That's right. Nothing less than Michigan's House Criminal Justice Committee advanced legislation last week that would lead to fines of up to $100 for panhandlers who beg from people who do not wish to be solicited. Here's what they call it:
The Aggressive Solicitation Prohibition Act.
Really? Michigan can't fix its roads. It's embroiled in a water crisis. Yet our legislature advances a spineless bill on ... panhandling.
I say "spineless" because such laws are. How can you judge what is "too much" from a beggar? Within 10 feet is too close for some people. "Do you have spare change?" makes others feel violated. And we haven't even addressed the lunacy of fining someone $100 who has to beg for a dollar.
How are we going to enforce this? Hold them there until police arrive? Send citations to their homes? Most of these poor people, like Cricket, don't even have an address.
I guess we can put them in jail -- as we used to do before an archaic law was struck down three years ago.
A larger issue is why we need this law at all. No, you should never be physically accosted, as this proposal covers, but we already have laws for that. And, yes, it can be uncomfortable being asked for money. But how "comfortable" do you think the begging person feels?
I've heard all the justifications: "They're just drug addicts. ... Let 'em get a job. ... They could be faking...." Sometimes these are accurate. Quite often they are not. The fact that you can never tell is, to me, an argument to help all of them -- not none of them.
Will a dollar make such a difference in our lives? What if it gets a person through a hungry night? I am amazed at how many people reject this.
Especially given the world we live in.
Can't ignore rights of the poor
Remember, these days, people regularly go online to solicit financial help. Salespeople call your home. Screaming ads dominate everything.
We live with this. But the thought of a poor, maybe even starving person getting in our space is too much?
Addressing "discomfort" is a luxury. It means at least part of your life is comfortable. You don't sleep in a box, you don't eat from dumpsters, you don't fear the cold. Yes, you work for a living. That's not a license to judge those who don't. Not everyone is as smart as you. Not everyone is as lucky as me. Not everyone grew up with guidance we might have.
If for no other reason, these needy citizens should have a First Amendment right to make their plea. This is why a previous Michigan law that made panhandling illegal was struck down in 2013. You remember that case? A homeless veteran was arrested for having a sign that read "Cold and Hungry, God Bless." Ultimately, a federal appeals court ruled his free speech was violated.
If a warped religious group is allowed, by law, to shout obscenities at a military funeral in America, then a poor person has the right to ask for something to eat, even if it makes us squirmy. The measure of a society is how it treats its poorest citizens.
When I told Cricket -- who said he became homeless when he lost his job seven years ago -- that I would be mentioning him in a column, you know what he said?
"Hey, if it helps other people, I'm all for it."
Leave it to the man with nothing to have more compassion than those of us who have plenty.