2015-05-28 / Opinion

Panhandlers Need Help, Not Handouts

It’s springtime in Newport, the flowers are blooming, trees are greening, and the peak tourism season is just around the corner with more visitors coming to our island.

Newport is an international resort, as the recently completed Volvo Ocean Race stopover so spectacularly reminded all of us.

In recent months, though, we seem to have a new sight here that many may take for granted in metropolitan cities but seems incongruent with our quaint city – a person standing in a busy intersection with their homemade cardboard sign soliciting cash.

As we write this, the Newport City Council is poised to consider a resolution directing the interim city solicitor to recommend an “ordinance to not only protect such solicitors but also the public at large with due deference to the constitutional rights of persons to engage in soliciting activities.”

Of course, the panhandling issue is stickier than that.

Newport is a bedrock of colonial history, with perhaps the nation’s best-kept trove of colonial-era homes, 19th and early 20th century industrialists’ mansions on Bellevue Avenue, and spectacular ocean vistas.

So we ask ourselves, whether politically correct or not, where do panhandlers fit into this picture?

The situation has evolved from years past when the city addressed the occasional pedestrian walking down the sidewalk asking passersby for spare change or a cigarette to a much more visible form of panhandling.

Perhaps panhandlers think of Newport as the home of the rich and famous–and therefore a fine place to beg for cash. But what about those who maintain that Newport is actually one of Rhode Island’s least-rich communities? That fact throws cold water on the followthe money theory.

We think that if panhandlers are really what they purport to be– homeless, down on their luck, parents without jobs–then what they need is help, not handouts. At first, when you see someone standing there holding a sign for help, you may feel sorry for them and are inclined to give them a dollar or two. But before you lower your car window, ask yourself if that token bill will really help them in the long run.

Newport is rich with social service organizations that help to find such people the help they need—temporary shelter, permanent places to live, health care services, children’s services, job leads.

What should we do? Donate money and food to our many local food pantries, help serve at a community meal site or volunteer at any of the numerous charitable agencies in town.

We need panhandlers to seek help. Newport’s social service network is ready when they are.

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