Left Justified: Rockford heals all wounds, even panhandlers'

If there’s one thing about Rockford that I love, it’s the caring people who try to heal wounds, especially of the poor and oppressed. They are among the town’s most important assets. Forest City social service agencies have good networks for working together, they are professional and proficient. And an army of volunteers supplements them.

Are poor people attracted to Rockford from other areas because of the largesse? Is that why there seem to be more homeless people panhandling on the streets of Rockford? Are police in Aurora putting their homeless on buses and sending them to Rockford (“No”)? Maybe the Cook County sheriff empties his prison by utilizing one-way tickets on Van Galder Bus (“No” again).

A few extra panhandlers seeking spare change, and folks think there’s a conspiracy. Someone is given a sob story as they exit Mal-wart, and everyone is wondering, “where are these poor souls coming from?”

First, don’t pander to panhandling. Unless you know the person, or have time to really help them through their needs, charity is best served through agencies, families and church groups. Panhandling is increasing because people, either generously or under duress, are chucking change at them, instead of demanding real social change.

Second, every major town outside of Chicago is experiencing an influx of poor. As the big city gentrifies, the poor are dispossessed of their homes, no matter how humble. If we do find that homeless are knowingly being shipped here, I’m sure our good network can organize a reverse policy and inundate any perpetrator with an army of the wretched.

No, my friends, poverty is on the rise, thanks to the wisdom of our elected officials and the decimation of the poverty programs. It is only the hard work of Rockford’s best that prevent the streets from being awash with sadness. Social service agencies take people off the streets, find them shelter, and move them up the ladder of success. Carpenter’s Place, Crusader Clinic, and Rockford’s own Human Services Department keep us from being drowned by the so-called “trickle down” theory (the rich dump scraps from their table, and the poor scramble, panhandle, or enlist in our armed forces).

The “drive for excellence” in our city includes all sectors and classes from the rich to the poor. If our city is known for its social services, then couldn’t we advertise that fact? Just like the Mayo Clinic made Rochester wealthy, there must be a way to make hay of the work of Zion Development, Janet Wattles and Group Hope (support for clinically depressed and bipolar) and all the other wonderful agencies. Helping people should be counted as adding to the wealth of this community. And the city can gain by exporting good ideas.

First, the federal and state governments should be rushing to our door finding out how Rockford heals the poor. Instead, we see our congressman cutting funding and sending much-needed resources to a stupid war in Iraq. Our governor is no better, and it looks like his opponent in the upcoming election is a disappointment who may even be worse. I’m voting Green Party in Illinois.

But I digress. Rockford has a wellspring of angels who turn people’s lives around and break the chains of poverty and mental illness. We can capitalize on these good souls. We should at least support them in their effort and advocate for their support through our elected representatives. Tell the panhandlers you “gave to an office.”

Nothing’s wrong with Rockford gaining the reputation of a place to make a difference, a place to find help and a place for a new beginning.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Sept. 6-12, 2006, issue

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