The Tucson Weekly office has been in the northwest area for almost two years, so I'm familiar with the the panhandlers in the medians. I can't say I enjoy seeing people day after day, hanging out, usually holding signs asking for cash identifying themselves as veterans or single moms, or other desperate situations.
I'm usually not one to roll down the window and hand out cash, and quite often I think to myself that saying, something like, "There but for the grace of God go I." I'm a single mom, who primarily lives paycheck to paycheck. There are nights that I think to myself that that could be me. I don't have much of a safety net and my support system is pretty minimal. I'm also someone who is fiercely independent and not one to ask for help. Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of new regulations on dealing with panhandlers on traffic medians. I guess I should be happy that I won't have to avoid making eye contact with panhandlers as often as I do now, nor think of my own high-wire act, but I'm not. Mostly, I find myself disappointed that we can never come up with more creative or real solutions to the problems that create these situations to begin with.
Years ago, I worked in Seattle. I took a year off to focus on freelancing and I also snuck in some time to volunteer with a new organization called Real Change. Its mission was to produce a newspaper that homeless people in Seattle could sell, keeping a portion of their profits and some of it to help the newspaper support itself. A few homeless people produced the content and different writers, some professional and some with a love for the written word, produced other stories. The goal was to create a product that people wanted to pick up—something worth the spare change people were asking, panhandlers turned newsies. It worked.
Back then, mid-'90s, homeless newspapers were an idea many large city organizations embraced and produced. I know in this day and age it's considered crazy to start a new publication given the state of media, but perhaps this would be different. Perhaps it would offer folks a source of cash, a voice and a point of pride. Does something like this address all the safety issues brought up at that first town hall meeting? Probably not. There are always going to be a few bad apples, but rather than moving the panhandle-herd to another area or take up the sideawalks with more people, let's think creatively or arrive to real solutions. Maybe it's time for a Real Change here in Tucson?
— Mari Herreras, firstname.lastname@example.org