NYC’s Holiday Plan: Arrest the Poor!

nyc subway pandhandler change

I was walking to the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago, squeezing down 63rd Street between Broadway and Columbus with all the other pedestrians. It was one of the first cold days of the year, and a man stood on the corner, asking for change. In their overcoats, one after another passed him by, even me, but then I turned around and walked back across the street and gave him a dollar. “Thank you!” he said with sincere gratitude. “None of these people will stop!” “I know!” I told him, just as surprised. I don’t share this story to show what a great guy I am—I really don’t—but to show what a bunch of jerks those rich people were.

“I never give them change,” someone told me recently, as though this consistency was an awesome thing to be proud of. Instead, she said, she volunteered with the homeless. Well, good, we should encourage volunteering and giving to charitable organizations, and maybe some of those Upper West Siders who passed that man by would tell me they donate money to a nonprofit like City Harvest. But isolated actions don’t absolve us of moral responsibility toward fellow New Yorkers, Americans, people; we carry it with us always. “The poor shall never cease out of the land,” it says in Deuteronomy. “Therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” (But then in Jesus Christ Superstar Jesus says, er, sings: “Surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling.” Ugh, Jesus’ defense of the woman who wastes the perfume is maybe my least favorite part of the Gospels.) As individuals we’re not responsible to every individual, but as a society we are, even as a microsociety—as a swarm of operagoers, at least one of us needs to stop and consider the needy.

Or, you know, report them to the police to be arrested. In the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, police arrested 71 subway pandhandlers, the Post reports. It’s because the tabloid complained in October that New York was going back to the “bad old days” because police weren’t arresting as many homeless people as they had in 2011. (The article, “Subways Overrun With Homeless as Panhandling Busts Down,” is a masterpiece of overblown Post style, managing even to spread some blame for this EPIDEMIC onto critics of stop-and-frisk! For the record, asking aboveground is legal; the MTA has its own rules.) Today’s article reads like a corrective, almost like an apology from Post beat reporters for the trouble Gary Buiso made, because this “crackdown” on panhandling is redirecting resources away from serious matters—like thwarting iPhone thefts and preventing mentally ill people from shoving commuters in front of trains. “The last thing we’re worried about is a man begging for a nickel on the holidays,” a police source told the paper. “It’s common sense.”

But not to a bunch of Gothamist commenters. “How does it defy common sense to stop people from living on and harassing commuters on public transportation?” asks one. “I’m all for police keeping people from begging for money on the trains,” writes another, a self-identified liberal. “It is harassment. It is bothersome. It is illegal, for good reason.” There are many more comments like this, and I feel like I’ve been living in a different New York, riding a different subway system for the last 30 years. Sure, crazy people on the trains can give you a hard time, but I’ve never felt harassed or bothered by someone just asking for money: if I don’t have any money, I keep my head in my book, and they shuffle past; if I don’t feel like giving, I do the same (but then only pretending to read, because I’m suffering a crisis of conscience about who I think I am needing all my coins and small bills); if it’s one of the rare insistent mendicants who stops and asks you directly, I’ll look him in the eye and say sorry. Or give him money.

I heard a lady complain recently that, despite the elaborate locks and gates and signs she’d installed, the Asians were still rummaging through her trash for recyclables! I had that problem once, too: people would come and literally tear my garbage bags open and spill the contents around the front of my building for access to the bottles and cans. Know what I did? I started putting my redeemables in a separate bag, and I never had that problem again. Treat other people like people and you’ll never feel bothered; do small favors for those who need them and maybe you won’t feel harassed.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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  1. To assume that all New Yorkers should share this point of view is unfair and ridiculous. You do deserve kudos for giving money to the poor near the opera, but you do not deserve any support for ridiculing those who do not give to panhandlers. It is a public street and a public train, and as far as I can see it if someone decides to stop to ask me for something on the street, I have every right to decide to respond or ignore.

    Your point to help contribute on a micro level is valid, but to discount those who volunteer or donate to charities makes your argument moot. Congratulations for feeling superior because you gave a dollar to a homeless person, but you aren’t righteous here; merely wrong.

  2. I wish there was a like button for you here Adam. I choose to give back in ways that make a difference long term – I work for an education non-profit that expands learning time for kids that live in the poorest neighborhoods in the 5 boroughs, I volunteer and donate to reputable organizations that have a proven track record of doing good things with donated funds and agree with my morals. If you think giving $1 dollar to a person asking for it on the street will dramatically change their lives or anyone else’s, you are surely mistaken. I never give money to people on the train – EVER and am not ashamed of that nor should anyone else be.