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I Panhandled on an OKC Median and Survived!

10:30 AM EDT on October 28, 2015

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"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." - Proverbs 31:8-9

My electricity is about to get cut off, if it isn’t already by the time this goes to print. Even for highly-paid freelance journalists, such as myself, times are tight and some months are tighter than others. First the electric, then the rent…if someone like me is one or two paychecks away from being homeless, can you imagine just how it must feel to actually be there?

There’s a lot of talk now about the poor in Oklahoma City. If anything, too much talk from people who have no idea what it’s like to actually be poor. Growing up in poverty, I saw my parents beg, borrow and steal to put food on the table, alternating between food stamps and commodities—I still remember when government cheese came in blocks—all the while performing under-the-table menial labor for $20 here or a tank of gas there just to keep us from being thrown out into the Oklahoma City streets.

It’s an internalized fear I still live with to this day, even more so when I hear these talking heads go out of their way to defame the impoverished and downtrodden, from the constant accusations of laziness to the urban legends of the homeless dude with a Maserati parked a block away. But it’s a stereotype that works, I guess, instilling class hatred as a weapon for their cause.

Right now, the Oklahoma City council is mulling over a proposal to make panhandling from medians illegal. While proponents of the act say that it’s a safety issue—apparently hundreds of homeless people die every year from falling off the median into oncoming traffic—those against it say it’s just another form of discrimination in a city that is becoming big league gentrified.

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Besides forcing panhandlers to find another means of income, the proposal would also hurt firemen collecting donations in their boots, kids promoting charity car washes and, probably worst of all, the vendors of the Curbside Chronicle, a local magazine homeless people sell in order to give them a steady income, which ultimately helps to get them out of poverty. It’s a proven system.

Even the ACLU stepped into the fracas, saying that the proposal is “unconstitutional,” but, really, when has anyone in Oklahoma’s government cared about any part of the Constitution besides the second amendment?

As I soon learned, panhandling ain’t fun. It’s disheartening. It’s humiliating. And, for many people, it’s a last resort. For some people, it’s all they got. And, as I stood there, cup in hand, I realized that from the smallest City Council member to the biggest Oklahoman reporter, therefore the grace of God go every single one of us.

Positioning myself on the median between N.W. 23rd and Classen, I started a little after noon on an unseasonably warm day to catch the lunchtime crowd on their way home. Brutally unshaven and naturally haggard, I proudly held my sign that read “The OKC City Council Believes That Panhandling on a Median Will Kill You, So Please Give Generously!” I wasn’t out there about ten minutes before the first car slowed down by me, only to yell “Get a job, faggot!”

There were many variations on this theme throughout the afternoon.

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As the sun beat down, and the caustic words of passersby even more so, the first money I made was from a woman in a hajab who said “I hope this helps…” as she dropped a dollar into my cup. A few seconds later, another woman in a battered Bronco dropped a handful of change in there as well. It would be another hour or so before I had another donation and that was just a glop of console quarters covered in a sticky tar-like substance.

In an effort not to trivialize their work, once I saw a Curbside Chronicle salesman appear across the street I moved on up the road, so as not to take any business from him. As I was walking up N.W. 23rd towards Robinson, a Ford Explorer with a “Coexist” bumper sticker flicked a lit cigarette at me and yelled something with the phrase “fatass” in it. That was a new personal low in my life!

I spoke to a few guys up at the bus stop around N.W. 23rd and Robinson who really opened my eyes about these supposed dangers of panhandling. One man told me how sometimes cars go out of their way to swerve and scare them, while others just throw change in the middle of the street and laugh as the desperate panhandlers hurriedly scrounge to pick it up. But what probably hurt the most was the constant verbal humiliation from people who know nothing about their lives or how they got there.

“You gotta get numb,” was the advice I was told.

And numb you do get. People don’t make eye contact with you. People look straight ahead, even with the windows down, and pretend like you don’t exist. After a while, it’s easy to start to feel like a non-entity, an invisible man. I guess it’s easier to ignore the problem if you believe it isn’t there.

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As I stood there on the very wide and very secure medians, never once falling into traffic, I began to notice a real safety hazard firsthand: most drivers would barely slow down at street-corners to make right-hand turns. I saw numerous people, mostly school-age kids, almost get run over while trying to cross the crosswalk, with many a car slamming on their brakes, barely missing the unsuspecting tykes. Where’s the ordinance on that, City Council? Where was the po-po when that was happening?

By the end of the day, after about four hours, I made a little under ten dollars and my only hoodie had a cigarette burn on it. I ended up buying myself a Sugar-Free Rock Star and three copies of the Curbside Chronicle as it didn’t seem right to keep the money. It didn’t seem right that there are people who actually have to do this to get a simple meal. It didn’t seem right that there are people who want to take this right away simply because it doesn’t look appealing next to that new big beautiful upscale seafood place.

It’s screwed up to realize that the people in our state care more about the granite slab the Ten Commandments are written on than the actual book they come from, picking and choosing which parts to justify their own hatred of the poor when even Jesus himself said, quite directly, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven...”

I panhandled on a busy Oklahoma City median and I lived to tell the tale. But, even more than that, I lived to tell the truth: this proposed ordinance is bullshit.

 Brother, can you spare a Tweet? Follow Louis on Twitter at @LouisFowler.

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