Ash Wednesday protest: Repeal Worcester’s anti-panhandling ordinance

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on February 5th, 2013

On Ash Wednesday, February 13, from 1-2 pm, the Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker community will sponsor a protest at Lincoln Square in Worcester calling for the repeal of anti-panhandling regulations passed last week. Signs will be held and the attached leaflet will be distributed.

Robert Peters, a long-time practitioner of Buddhist mediation, will wear a monk’s attire and hold a beggar’s bowl.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a one-time novice with the Capuchin-Franciscans, will wear a Franciscan habit and also carry a beggar’s bowl.

Robert will be on the sidewalk, while Scott will defy the anti-panhandling ordinance by begging on the median strip. Both of them hope to highlight the sacred place begging and giving to beggars has in all the world’s major religions.

The members of the Catholic Worker community have sent the attached letter to Worcester’s police chief, mayor, and all the city councilors describing their reasons for holding this protest. Any funds collected will be given directly to those who who continue to feel the need to appeal for help on the streets of Worcester. For more information, call Claire Schaeffer-Duffy 508 753-3588.


Flyer for this event:

Lift the Restrictions on Panhandling!

As providers of shelter for the homeless, we know that these are very hard economic times. Jobs are in short supply and most of those that are available don’t pay a living wage. Government aid is shrinking. The city of Worcester is refusing to shelter anyone who cannot prove two years’ residency. At our hospitality house for the homeless, we get calls daily from people who literally have no where to go for help. At the same time, all the world’s major religious traditions teach that giving to those in need is a holy act. Jesus said in the Gospel of Saint Luke, “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In Judaism, Tzedakah, (giving to the poor) is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due. In the Koran it says, “Give something (even if it is very little) to the beggar or send him away with nice words; because he may be an angel who visits you to see how you use the blessings and bounties that Allah granted you.” Giving (dana) is one of the essential preliminary steps of Buddhist practice.

Saint Francis of Assisi believed that, when one’s needs could not be met by work, begging promoted humility, greater awareness of God’s providence, and an opportunity for others to do good. Hindu holy men and Buddhist monks live exclusively on what they beg. The anti-panhandling regulations in Worcester make the lives of the very poor even more desperate.

Worcester’s chief of police says that panhandlers will be given information on alternatives. We know from experience that those alternatives are in very short supply these days. The anti-panhandling regulations also prohibit little league teams and firefighters from fund-raising at intersections. Politicians claim these regulations are for safety, but no one can point to a single injury related to panhandling. We believe the regulations are another attempt by the city to compel the poor to get out of town or at least out of sight.

Given that Jesus said in Matthew 25 that whatever we do or fail to do for those in need, we do or fail to do for Him, we feel compelled to challenge the anti-panhandling regulations. As a community that subsists entirely on private donations, we are beggars too. If the city wants to arrest someone, let them arrest us.

The members of the Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker

52 Mason Street, Worcester, MA 01610

A letter to local leaders:

The Members of the Worcester City Council
Mayor Petty
Police Chief Gemme

February 5, 2013

Dear City Leaders,

Peace! As people who have offered shelter to the poor for more than 30 years, we can say from experience that these are some of the hardest economic times. Jobs are scarce, wages are at historic lows, while debt is at a historic high. The gap between the rich and poor is the widest it has been in our lifetimes. At the same time, government is cutting spending. The safety net for the poor is coming apart. The city of Worcester is trying to limit the number of homeless it serves by requiring those seeking shelter to prove two years of residency in Worcester. Here at Saints Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker, we get as many as a dozen calls a day from women and men who say they have no where to turn for help. God forgive us, but with our space limitations we turn most of them away. Our greatest fear is that some of these people will freeze to death on the street, or take their lives in despair.

In this economic context, it has not surprised us to see more people begging on street corners. We always try to offer what we can mindful of the instructions in the Gospel of Saint Luke to give to everyone who begs from us. We have never met an “aggressive” panhandler. Quite the contrary, people have been more appreciative than the size of our gifts have warranted.

But now the city has passed a complex ordinance prohibiting desperately poor people from asking for help in most locations where they currently make their appeals. After giving them a warning, the police will begin issuing citations for $50 or a requirement for community service. Instead of expanding assistance, the city is placing another barrier to poor people’s ability to survive.

Therefore, on Ash Wednesday, February 13, the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a time when we are called to rededicate ourselves to the works of mercy, we will assemble at Lincoln Square to call for a lifting of the panhandling restriction. From 12 P.M. at least one member of our group will stand on the median strip to appeal for funds for the poor. We recognize that this is a direct violation of the anti-panhandling ordinance. If the city means to arrest anyone, it would be far better to arrest one of us who will be unafraid to challenge this ordinance in court than those impoverished individuals who have been beaten down too much already.

Like each of you in government and public service, we love this city and want to see it become better. Not having beggars on street corners is a goal we too support, but one that ought to be accomplished through economic and educational opportunities, not threats. As government moves farther away from meeting the needs of the poor, all of us are going to have to do more for those in need or face the gaunt expressions of those who have never enjoyed the American dream.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Robert Peters

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