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Lalley: Asking for money on the streets doesn't seem like a great way to make a living

The number of panhandlers in Sioux Falls is growing each year. They wouldn't be there if it didn't work. The solutions are known. The problem is following through.

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Panhandling is on the rise. Officials say they wouldn't be there if the public didn't give them money.
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SIOUX FALLS — Our brains have trouble comprehending numbers beyond a certain point.

The billions of stars in the universe.

The vastness of South Dakota and the imbalance of population from urban to rural.

We think we have some idea what that means and then something happens to make you feel incredibly small and vulnerable, like driving to Rapid City deep into a cold winter night.

I suspect it’s the same thing when I see panhandlers in Sioux Falls.

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I can’t comprehend how there are that many people in the city who are willing to toss a couple bucks out the window of their car to the poor soul standing on the corner with a sign.

I can’t believe that many people still carry cash.

And yet, there’s an observable increase in the number of people out there plopped at an intersection with a cardboard sign, in obvious life distress, trying to get by.

In some other spot in our brains, we assess the situation of this person or that. They are homeless, or a veteran or just broken.

And maybe that’s true for some. But what people working in social services will tell you is that the panhandlers aren’t the people showing up at the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House, the primary shelter for the homeless in downtown Sioux Falls.

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The panhandlers make enough to have a place to live and meet their immediate needs at least for a day.

It’s an odd juxtaposition.

The people we associate with being homeless quite possibly are not. And the people who are homeless we probably don’t see.

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That’s why it’s hard to solve. Our impressions and presuppositions fail us, particularly when all we really know is what we can glean driving by in a car.

Most assume that panhandling, at some level, must be illegal. But it’s not, as long as the person is on the sidewalk, not standing in the street obstructing traffic and not harassing the public.

We also probably think that if that person has time to ask for money from strangers they have time to work. In a similar state, I tell myself, I’d rather mow lawns or sweep a warehouse than ask strangers for loose change.

After all, it doesn’t look like that much fun.

But here’s the real reason it’s hard to solve. It works. People do hand out money.

The hard reality is that if we want fewer downtrodden and desperate souls setting up shop on the corner, we have to stop giving them money.

Mayor Paul TenHaken said to me once that Sioux Falls is a good place to be homeless. By that, he meant we are generous people who want to think we are helping another person. And in that moment, in a micro sense, that’s true.

But, he has said many times, the only way to stop panhandling is to cut off the cash. Give your money to the many agencies whose mission is to help people. The city has signs around downtown that say just that.

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South Dakota blogger Scott Ehrisman takes it a step further and suggests that when drivers hand money out of the car window, they should be ticketed for obstructing traffic, not the panhandler.

It’s an intriguing idea because it spreads the social burden.

Maybe the threat of paying even a $10 ticket — same as a parking violation — changes the mental equation.

It’s one thing to give money to a person in a bad way. It’s quite another to have to give it to the government.

Now that’s something we can get our brains around.

Related Topics: SIOUX FALLSALL-ACCESS
Opinion by Patrick Lalley
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for the Forum News Service in Sioux Falls. Reach him at plalley@forumcomm.com.
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