Thornton: Big thoughts from a man named Little

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton during a recent Issues & Experts debate hosted at Scottsdale Community College. (File Photo)

I reached out to Scottsdale Community Advocate John Little to better understand how he interprets the burgeoning vagrancy issue within city limits.

The article, which we affectionately coined, “Empathy & Compassion” is meant to be an explanatory piece on both the ills of poverty but also how those ills are interpreted by at-large society.

Mr. Little is a former Scottsdale city manager, life member of the Scottsdale Charros and past community affairs director of the Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors.

I could think of no better resident source than Mr. Little.

And, I was so impressed with his words and perspective — not to mention his recent On the Road pursuit! — that I would like to offer my space for his words:

John Little

• At Scottsdale intersections, how do you view the individuals who are begging for help?

I am troubled by the fact that I am viewing them with increasing frequency not just in Scottsdale but in nearly every American city. My heart aches as I watch them shuffle through the dust looking disheveled and forlorn, their eyes saying more to me than anything they have scrawled on their cardboard sign.

My first impression is they are genuinely impoverished. And, while I know there are panhandlers who are cheats and frauds, I also know that by some estimates there are 3.5 million people living on the streets and that nearly a third of them are families with kids or they are veterans who have paid the price of my freedom.

I cannot reconcile their poverty amidst the garden of abundance in which I live.

•Do you believe yourself to be empathetic and compassionate to the needs of others? If so, how do you use that train of thought when discussing this local vagrancy issue?

Last year I rode a Greyhound bus across America for nearly 90 hours. I was living out a Jack Kerouac experience trying to rediscover the vagabond spirit of my younger days. My wife dropped me off at the bus depot near Sky Harbor and for the next three days I lived with the transients, the drifters, the mentally disabled and “the “invisibles” of our society.

I witnessed first-hand how my fellow travelers were humiliated by convenience store clerks, dismissed by ticketing agents and abused by drivers. Interestingly, the passengers were as kind to each other as society was cruel to them. Whatever little they owned, they shared with each other. Perhaps a lesson for the rest of us. Poverty and homelessness is something my circle of friends not just talk about but work hard to resolve.

• Do you think those individuals are running a scheme or seeking help?

Studies confirm most of these people legitimately need help. However, there are cheaters and frauds that make giving money to panhandlers a really bad idea.

•From the municipal perspective, what can be done to help these individuals — and the general Scottsdale citizenry — while still working within the confines of the First and Eight amendments?

As a resident of one of the wealthiest communities in America, I am frequently reminded of John F Kennedy’s admonition to his fellow Americans in 1960. Recognizing the growing disparity of rich and poor he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The best way we can help the poor is not by providing them with money on street corners. Instead each one of us ought to be giving generously to food banks, shelter programs, eliminating homelessness among veterans and contributing to programs and services that deal with mental health.

Interfaith groups need to step up and provide additional resources for emergency homeless shelters and more beds. Government, for its part, needs to accept responsibility for creating long-term solutions and stop merely dealing with the effects of poverty and begin addressing the causes: Illiteracy, mental illness, drug use and lack of skills training and institutional racism.

Government doesn’t need to provide handouts, but it does need to provide opportunities for lending a hand-up. A longterm strategy is needed for dealing with people who have been incarcerated and released into society with poor social/language skills, no job, perhaps a drug habit and a criminal record.

This pretty much launches their life trajectory towards a shopping cart, a few layers of cardboard, a bad sunburn and chronic health issues. We can do better. We must do better. Lastly here are two things that should not be done. Licensing of panhandlers. A failed strategy wherever it has been implemented. Arresting homeless panhandlers. Being poor is not a crime.

One last thought, why do we refer to the street corner beggars as “panhandlers?” The etymology of the word suggests it may be easier for us to drop our spare change in a pan held at arms length than to actually press it into the palm of a stranger.

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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