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Word of a new level of permissiveness for beggars has quickly spread among the homeless and destitute.

I'm not aware of any unions or industry associations that unite streetside panhandlers, but there are apparently some effective channels of communication spreading the news the Supreme Court has put out the welcome mat for men and women who want to use cardboard signs to ask motorists for money.

A recent errand run in Fayetteville took me all around town. I saw panhandlers standing at four intersections waiting for the next generous soul to hand them a few dollars. At Interstate 49 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, two men worked the exit ramp, standing on either side with their signs and what I suppose were their few belongings.

It's a serious change from the past. I've seen more street corner solicitations in the last few months in Fayetteville than in the previous 20 years since I moved to town.

Blame Clarence Thomas. Yes, the same one who swore Mike Pence in as the vice president of the United States on Friday. The associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote the decision in an Arizona lawsuit involving a city's attempt to prohibit certain signs. That case has subsequently been cited by other courts in striking down bans on panhandling. Holding a cardboard sign asking for money is, the theory of constitutional law goes, an exercise of free speech.

The ruling has essentially a created a safe zone -- any public right of way along city streets -- for panhandling.

Spotting these folks raises concern. It's heartbreaking the circumstances of life have led them to the point they must beg. Fayetteville and its residents have demonstrated compassion for the homeless and downtrodden through 7Hills Homeless Center, through area churches that regularly feed those in need and through city government. Just a couple of weeks ago, the City Council agreed to spend $103,000 in taxpayer dollars this year in support of the transitional housing complex owned by the city but operated by 7Hills. Even with all that, these individuals spend hours on street corners hoping enough spare dollars will come their way to help them get by.

On the flip side, their presence at so many locations so frequently isn't good for the community. Thousands upon thousands of people visit Fayetteville every year, for Razorback games, for other events at the university, to conduct business and to take in all that Fayetteville has to offer. Despite all Fayetteville does for the less fortunate, their presence on street corners promotes the image of a city (1) with a homeless "problem" and (2) a city that isn't taking care of those in need.

It's ironic. Fayetteville provides a significantly higher level of services aimed at helping the homeless and the needy, and to a degree, that serves as a magnet. For example, transportation options are better in Fayetteville than in most every other Northwest Arkansas community. And yet the city may now earn a reputation as a panhandling town because of a high population of people willing to take up their cardboard signs.

Law enforcement officers used to witness panhandlers shuffle away as soon as the officers rolled up to check on them. Today, officers say the beggars stand their ground and declare their "rights" to be there.

Kit Williams, Fayetteville's city attorney, recently asked the City Council to revise limits that affected panhandling to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court and subsequent court decisions. Those recent rulings makes it virtually impossible that the city could prevail in defending prohibitions affecting panhandlers, Williams said. Some national law firms are making money by suing cities over their panhandling ordinances. Fayetteville's ordinance changes were an attempt to thwart their chance at success.

"It's a minefield out there if you want to try to do anything," Williams said. And Williams doesn't care much for the courts' impact. "The ivory tower position the Supreme Court has taken on the First Amendment, I wish they were out here in the real world. This is not the intent of the First Amendment."

I asked if he had any recommendations to people who don't want to encourage panhandling. Williams said he doesn't give directly to panhandlers, but instead supports charitable organizations such as 7Hills that are familiar with local residents in need.

"All I can tell people is the government can't stop it," Williams said.

"If you're going to give directly to panhandlers, don't complain, because then you're going to have panhandlers," he said.

Commentary on 01/23/2017

Print Headline: Brother, can you spare a dollar?

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