Nothing turns off a visitor to a city–in Tennessee or anywhere else–faster than getting verbally abused by a homeless or deranged person. Aggressive panhandling poses a challenge to city governments. People have a right to walk on sidewalks, and being poor is not a crime. Yet tourists and locals have a reasonable expectation of coming downtown and not getting involved in a confrontation.
Memphis panhandler washing the windows of a vehicle
Paul Ryburn is a Memphis blogger whose postings revolve around pubs and downtown happenings. Any joviality vanishes, however, when the topic swings around to panhandling. Ryburn has his public blog, but also hosts an on-line discussion group on panhandling that one can join only by invitation.
I was accepted for membership and have been following the discussion for several months. Participants get very precise about the names of the worst offenders. The fellow in the photo above, for instance, was described as follows:
“Curtis” has been seen Downtown for at least 5 years. He is most commonly seen around Second, Peabody Place, and Beale doing several of the common panhandling gimmicks – the “Downtown tour guide,” carrying flowers to offer to couples, carrying an umbrella to shield people from the rain. When refused for a “donation” he can become belligerent, accusing the person he’s trying to panhandle of being racist and of hating black people. Recently seen charging people for parking in metered spaces (free on the weekends) on Beale Street between Main and Second – this is illegal. Will work odd jobs for a few bucks when Downtown businesses hire him. Used to live in the Exchange Building, panhandling to pay his rent; it’s believed he’s not there anymore. He may be homeless, but he’s had 5 years to get off the streets and this is as far as he’s managed to get. No sign of mental illness or other evidence why he can’t hold a job.
I first felt uncomfortable reading these posts, but the more I read them the more I realized just how obnoxious many of these guys are. They regularly yell and curse at people and have gotten physical with people who reject their aggressive tactics.
The last time I was in Memphis, I ran into several members of a security patrol whose purpose seemed to be to help visitors and to keep the local homeless folks from pestering us. I took this photo in Court Square:
Tourism agencies would perform a useful service if they would tell visitors about some of the common tricks that panhandlers will try to pull, such as washing your car windows without asking, then demanding a tip; charging to park on streets where free parking is permitted; or holding an umbrella over a visitor during a rainstorm–again without asking–and demanding money.
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