Opinion | In response to ‘I’ve had enough of the panhandlers downtown’

On Sept. 1st, Evanston Now published a provocative guest essay that criticized the panhandlers in downtown Evanston, most notably on Davis and Maple near Gigios and Bennisons. The essay was brief, and anecdotal. In summation, the author was fed-up with the panhandling she routinely faces at that intersection in her neighborhood. The article was met with a stark contrast in reactions. Many older citizens flocked to the comments, praising the author’s honesty and agreeing about the issue, while many teenagers fired back against the message. Older audiences made comments about Evanston’s declining “standards” and expressed nostalgia for the past when this was (supposedly) less of a problem. They commended her, viewing her statements as someone who is merely concerned with being heckled on the street. Younger audiences saw it as an entitled, misguided approach to a social problem. They argued that they frequently encountered these people and felt no hostility or aggression. 

Our intent with this response is not to degrade or “cancel” any parties involved, but to discuss how this article can be used as a tool to examine, understand, and confront injustice. 

We are in a time where many people are moving forward, working towards new solutions, while others, in opposition to this progression, seek comfort in the past. Particularly within Evanston, we see an individual avoidance to progressivism, and people find comfort in our collective liberal reputation. Particularly older, white, wealthy Evanstonians, seem to think that our work towards equity in the city is finished now that we have reached a sort of “minimum threshold” of being progressive. 

And this is what we should take note of. When we reach a certain point of progress, resistance to change often follows. People get upset, leave, and search to find space that replicates the nostalgia they feel. An anonymous commentator under the pseudonym “Wake Up Evanston” literally speaks to this. 

“Evanston used to be the dining capital. It was clean, beautiful and respectable. It was a sophisticated destination . . . Our family tradition was going to Bennison’s on the weekend. We now have a new tradition in Wilmette at the little French bakery where no one accosts me and my children don’t hear foul language.” 

The author provides only anecdotal stories of her personal experiences with harassment, which of course is supported and refuted by more stories from the two opposing sides. It becomes a game of telephone, and we cannot discern fact from fiction, and really understand the piece. These two sides have narratives and ideas about one thing or another, and the piece’s point is lost. Thus, it is not these recantations where we find the true controversy of her argument. The issue lies not in what is said, but rather what isn’t.

We must recognize the presence of race and anti-Blackness within the author’s writing. Anti-Blackness is a relatively newer term, deriving from the ideas of Afro-Pessimism. Although it has no certain definition, the term pertains to a White (particularly American) inability to recognize the humanity of Black people.  By not isolating race–by not explicitly naming how homelessness is related to anti-Blackness—the writer allows readers to make inferences about who she’s referring to without a nuanced and racialized context of the issue. The majority of unhoused men in downtown Evanston are Black men. My (S.J-B’s) experiences with them have consisted of simply an acknowledging nod or a “How you doing?” that Black folks have generationally exchanged between strangers. 

In this regard of avoiding nuance and social context, supporters of this article flourish. Of course, if we are to blindly and naively see this complaint, we can live in bliss thinking that she merely wants to be left alone, and see their side of things. This approach is impossible though. The true issue with this piece lies in the tone, the startling reaction to blatant poverty, and the racist implications that lay beneath her statements. She throws around phrases like, “Bad luck” as she laments running into a red light, and waiting next to a man asking for change, or thinking “safe” as she reaches the pizza parlor. 

She writes with a sense of entitled disgust, and her tone is filled with contempt towards unhoused people. Her social perspective seeps out near the end, as she expresses her dissatisfaction with the approaches of “Interfaith, Connections, and the usual Evanston Do-gooders”. In this battle of old and new, she exposes herself as the old, and the true meaning that lies between the lines is revealed. It’s in this final paragraph, while admonishing other residents, where she admits her resentment towards their ideas, and the issue is blatantly clear. 

She is fed up being chided by people to “‘have compassion’ because ‘panhandlers are people’”. She writes, “You know what? The panhandlers today certainly did not see me as a person. They didn’t want to know my name or what I did this summer. They were only interested in what I could do for them”. 

This is the final straw in her facade as a woman only concerned with being asked for money. She seems to regard unhoused citizens as less than people. Here, she embodies an issue in all suburbs, and bleeds entitlement. Unwavering in her stance, the mask is off, and the larger-scale implications show themselves. People in the suburbs are often averse to the acknowledgment of poverty, and when it is staring her, and all these other people in the face, they feel uneasy. Their safe, quiet suburb is suddenly a place where people are not homogeneously wealthy, popping their bubble of bliss by a harsh reality.  

The rudimentary, simplistic view of such complex problems is something that we (SOAR) feel compelled to respond to. Although she avoids explicitly stating it, her rhetoric blatantly reinforces class disparities and anti-Blackness. 

Her article isn’t the end-all-be-all though. The author provides no solution, which is actually a good thing. Although it’s an article that provides itself as a misguided cry of entitlement and white supremacy, she’s not truly stuck to one view or another, and it seems there is still room for improvement. There is still time for her to look inwards, and realize a dollar or two can’t hurt. In that sense, there’s still time for the people of Evanston, politicians and citizens alike, to realize that this is a real problem, not an online discussion. Because there is no immediate solution. Between the hyper-politicization of social issues, and the social implications  of political issues, people have lost sight of what matters. Homelessness and the subsequent racial issues are not merely debate topics that need to be evaluated for ethics and morals by two audiences. These are issues with layers embedded within them. Mental illness, addiction, trauma, economic disparities, and a lack of public resources all work in and out of each other, creating a massive cycle that traps people—especially BIPOC—into unshakeable poverty. 

We can’t just “ship them away” like some commenters believe. We also can’t ignore it, or just see it as a normal way of life. If you have the privilege, the ability to help out, what’s stopping you?