“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

— Jesus


I don’t usually give to the panhandlers. But sometimes I do.

On the times when I don’t give I usually feel a little guilty. Not because I don’t know that many of the panhandlers will use the money for drugs or booze, or because I don’t know that a lot of them might be hustling because they’re lazy.

I feel a little guilty because so many of them are obviously in need. And I personally have ignored that need as I drive on by.

A lot of the panhandlers, to me, look like they’re in trouble in one way or another.

Maybe it’s as simple as they just need someone to say something nice to them. Maybe they get a lot of mean looks when they’re standing on that traffic island begging for bucks. Especially in a place like New Bedford where many of the drivers at the stop light are worried about paying the rent this month or whether the transmission on the Corolla is going to finally die.

Who wants to be bothered by a panhandler? They’re probably someone who isn’t even trying. I have to work, why don’t they?

But still.

A lot of the panhandlers look like they need help.

I know, I know. Some of the city councilors want to put up signs directing the spongers to social service agencies or drug rehabilitation clinics.

That strikes me as too cute by half.

Because clearly a lot of the folks on the islands aren’t ready for help. They’re on the island because for whatever reason it’s still easier for them to take the drink or the needle, to keep living with their crazy thoughts, than to get a job. That’s not getting away with murder, it’s being owned by your body in a way most of us will never have to face.

I personally am glad that when I walk by everyone doesn’t say how many doughnuts did you eat this month, Jack? But I don’t have to worry because it is, after all, more socially acceptable to eat too many doughnuts than to stand on a traffic island and beg for money.

On the balance sheet of how we live our lives, most of us have some sort of behavior that doesn’t work. Maybe we eat too much sugar or maybe we run up the credit card because we like nice clothes. Maybe we’re so perfect we get addicted to jogging and get shin splints. Whatever.

These dysfunctional behaviors of ours, they’re always with us. Someday maybe we’ll grow out of them or someday maybe we won’t. Maybe when they lay us six feet below our wife or son will be whispering he never could get up off that couch.

The panhandlers, for whatever reason, have become more common in recent years.

Perhaps it’s because we have an opioid crisis or perhaps it’s because the courts have made the vagrancy laws hard to enforce. But maybe it’s because folks have figured out the system is rigged and they’re just not embarrassed by begging anymore.

So the good Mayor Mitchell and the state of Massachusetts have come up with a medieval torture device to help solve the panhandler crisis. It seemed to appear out nowhere this week, cobblestones angled in the air so you can’t stand on the traffic island as you exit the Fairhaven bridge.

City Councilor Dunn quickly pointed out that we’ve passed a Rubicon of sorts, we’ve deliberately constructed a public accommodation to be dangerous. And it’s not just dangerous for the panhandlers, it’s dangerous for everyone. Imagine you’re halfway through the Octopus and some dope speeds by, running the light in his truck. You better not run to the island!

I know, I know, it’s more dangerous for the panhandlers to be constantly standing there in the middle of the speeding traffic.

But still.

The angled cobblestones are not the first deliberately dangerous accommodation installed in New Bedford. A few years ago, they put up iron bars with prongs that point upward on the window bays at the downtown library. Some of the folks who don’t work during the day had taken over the library exterior as their daytime squatters camp.

I remember thinking that was a good thing but I know others who were really upset by it. The question is this: Who gets to get the most out of the library, the squatters or the folks worried about whether they’ll be taunted as they walk by?

The truth is that the panhandlers had already disappeared from the Octopus even before the torturous cobblestones were installed. Chief Cordeiro tells me the department had begun a program where they educated the solicitors that when they step onto the road, they are violating the law by creating a safety hazard. There are still a few panhandlers hanging on in the neighborhoods outside of center city but the mayor tells me he’s had more positive comments about the edgy cobblestones than almost anything he’s done as mayor.

I’m going on and on.

I’m ruminating even more than usual because of something that happened this winter.

It was one of the coldest days, a really cold day. And as I exited the Fairhaven bridge and pulled up alongside the island, a skinny, middle-aged woman with a weather-beaten face was standing where the angled cobblestones have since been installed. She had her cardboard “homeless’ sign but as my car pulled up, she was literally nodding off as she stood.

She was clearly very high. She had the look of the beaten down. She had the look of someone with no choice.

Was she there on her own? I wondered. Did someone have her there to pay what was owed?

I drove on by but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. She was as desperate a human being as I’ve ever seen, lower than I have ever been at my lowest moments.

So I drove all the way back on the Fairhaven bridge, turned around in the TruValue parking lot, and drove back up alongside the island. I rolled down the window and gave her a couple bucks.

She looked startled and said “God bless you.”

“God bless me?” “God bless me?”

There’s no blessing to be done. I didn’t do anything for her at all. I was just feeling guilty that anyone could be so low as to have to do what she was doing. I needed to get rid of that guilt.

No, it’s not good for us to have so many people panhandling these days.

But it’s also not good to make them more invisible and not really help them.

I don’t know what the solution is. But it’s not just the panhandlers' problem. It’s all of our problem.