Lunching on the patio of a downtown restaurant during a recent sunny afternoon, I noticed a few sparrows hopping about, looking hopefully for crumbs. I quietly tossed a couple of crumbled corn chips to the birds, which they gratefully accepted.
I know, I know, you shouldn't encourage the little winged scavengers, but I like sparrows. They remind me that we're not alone in the world, that other creatures are entitled to their space, to their lives.
Then it occurred to me that the sparrows would be in violation of the proposed anti-solicitation ordinance. They're downtown, actively soliciting gifts, and even had the temerity to do so on private property. Officer, arrest these birds!
We can call the panhandling ordinance anything we want, but "solicitation" is just the tip of the iceberg.
We don't like the men and women at whom the anti-solicitation ordinance is aimed. They're dirty, disheveled and confused. They smell bad. Some sit quietly with cardboard signs, while others are assertive, even hostile. In groups of two or three, they seem threatening. We'd love to get them out of downtown, so can't we just pass a law and make them disappear?
We're fine with the invisible poor — reasonably well-behaved folks who somehow stitch together crisis-filled lives. Thousands live on the margins, getting by on day jobs and food stamps, living in shabby motels, and somehow surviving. We'll give to Care and Share, support church charities, and do what we can to help. But it's up to them to get it together and lift themselves out of poverty.
That's fine in theory. We can prattle hopefully about programs like No Child Left Behind, but in the real world many of us are left behind. We're brought low by illness, misfortune, family dysfunction, drug and alcohol addiction, and often enough by our own stupidity. Most of us soldier on as best we can, even if consumed by resentment and anger.
Some of us don't — or can't.
Next time you're downtown, look at the people at whom the anti-solicitation ordinance is aimed. Many have bicycles, thanks to the charity of individuals who repair secondhand bikes and give them to the poor. Last Friday, I watched as a downtown beggar mounted his bike and rode gracefully down Kiowa Street.
It occurred to me that someone had taught him to ride as a little boy. Someone had picked him up when he fell, and someone had taken off his training wheels when he was ready to ride free.
And now? That family has likely shattered. Street people are often estranged, thanks to schizophrenia, alcoholism or drug use. If the graceful rider falls, there's no one to pick him up.
Catholic Charities' Marian House, providing an array of services to the hungry, homeless and desperate, sits a few blocks from the center of downtown. The feral, chronically homeless men whom we so despise are creatures of downtown.
So why are we so frightened of them? Why does their very presence annoy us? Why do we imagine that we can create a laundered, bum-free, mock-suburban downtown?
Look at the beggars again — and don't avert your eyes. You see sickness and dementia, nights in prison and days of danger. You see people who have abandoned pride and hope. You turn your eyes away.
On Sept. 11, City Councilor Bernie Herpin delivered a moving invocation prior to Council's meeting. He paid eloquent tribute to those who perished 11 years ago, noting sacrifices of firefighters, police and the military. As I listened to Bernie, a half-remembered chapter of the New Testament came to mind. I found it in my father's Bible, given to him by my grandfather in 1902.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. — Matthew 25:40.
As the anti-solicitation ordinance comes to the nine members of Council, it might be appropriate to put aside for a moment the separation of church and state, and ask a vexing, irritating question: WWJD?
You know the answer — and, Matthew tells us, someone's paying attention. "Not a sparrow falls ..."