zAmya Theater looks at panhandling in Minneapolis


Begging on the street is looked on by some as parasitical panhandling. Others view it, particularly in this economic day and age, as a legitimate means to one’s financial ends. Sometimes, it’s actually neither. 

There is a man named John in the Elliot Park neighborhood, for instance, who has a place to stay, eats regularly and is always in clean clothes. No one can pass him, however, without being hit on for a cigarette. It takes a minute while talking with him to realize he’s slow upstairs and, whether he actually wants a smoke or not, will try to bum one off whoever’s handy. It’s just a habit with him, a compulsion.

One thing is without question. Panhandling is a prevalent practice in downtown Minneapolis and it will not be going away anytime soon, which makes interesting a recent public forum, “Panhandling: A Community Response,” the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness and zAmya Theater Project collaboration presented Aug. 23 at the Basilica of St. Mary.

Over the course of two hours, workshop exercises, dialoguing and actors performing skits were all employed to explore attitudes about and perspectives on the issue for a presentation advocating for the down and out. It started at the door. On entering, attendees received a playbill-flyer that opened to a mini-brochure debunking panhandler stereotypes. On the back were paragraphs each describing the social services mission of each sponsoring organization.

The zAmya Theater Project, founded in 2004, is a theatrical program at St. Stephens Human Services, which offers, among other aid, emergency shelter for those who are sober with meals, advocacy and housing assistance, street outreach for those subsisting outdoors to get housing, and services and programs that seek to do something concrete about long-term homelessness in the way of permanent housing for individuals and families.

zAmya Theater Project artistic director Maren Ward is co-artistic director at Bedlam Theatre. The Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness coalition works to end homelessness and poverty through education, support of Heading Home Hennepin and building relationships with the homeless and near homeless, volunteers, and community organizations.

There were about 300 in the audience at the Basilica. Asked how successful the evening was in terms of meeting its goal, Heidi Johnson McAllister, Congregational Organizer for Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness said, “The evening was a huge success! As communities of faith, our sacred texts do not always give us easy answers. Our conversation on Monday was not to provide easy answers, but to be thought provoking about how we respond in those situations.

“Our goals were to bring people together to talk about panhandling and use the collective wisdom of the group to learn new ways we can respond in the moment we are asked for money.”

There wasn’t an especially visible presence of panhandlers on hand for the discussions about how to address the issue. In fact, it was a well-dressed, apparently upscale assemblage.

McAllister states, “Former panhandlers, police officers, and folks from the business community were all consulted during the creation of the script for the evening. In the audience on Monday evening, there were former and current panhandlers, police officers, and business folks. One of the panhandlers did stand up and talk about his experience of panhandling, as that is how he is able to pay his bills.”

The issue, of course, is a tough one to adequately address. It is particularly hard for the everyday citizen who is going on about his or her business and gets asked on the sidewalk for money.

There is absolutely no way to tell which man or woman in front of you is running a deadbeat scam instead of going out and looking for a job and which one is honestly in need of your help. Turn someone down for a handout, and you run the risk of refusing a person desperately in need. Give someone a handout, and you may be supporting somebody who’s too lazy to earn his or her own living and opts to leech off of others instead.

“Panhandling: A Community Response” was not meant to propose a definitive solution. Heidi Johnson McAllister comments, “We are planning a follow-up conversation to offer and discuss the long-term solutions that really address the underlying issues of panhandlers. And [we] will be publicizing it soon.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-re