Death of a panhandler

The world will little note nor long remember the man who died with his hand out while panhandling on the median at the intersection of Gainesville’s NW 16th Blvd and NW 43rd St. on Thursday.

The Sun noted it in a six paragraph brief the next day: “The vehicle that hit the victim was eastbound. He hit the median and the person standing in the median, and threw him into a car that was stopped,” GPD Inspector Jorge Campos told The Sun. “He was transported to the hospital and pronounced (dead) there.”

Neither the names of the victim nor the motorists involved were released. 

But within hours of the man’s death, the jury of public opinion was already weighing in on Facebook. An online news item drew more than 120 comments. 

“Maybe now there will be less beggars,” one compassionate soul wrote. 

“Not surprised, I knew it would happen sooner or later,” chimed in another.

And drivers “are getting so fed up they are taking matter into their own hands. This is the problem with our liberal leaders not getting the panhandling under control.”

And “STAY OUT OF THE MEDIANS! STAY AWAY FROM OUR VEHICLES! THAT IS OUR RIGHT! I DON’T WANT YOU NEAR MY VEHICLE!”

Which was not to say that this was entirely a one-sided diatribe. When one contributor suggested that Gainesville needs an ordinance “that states that for the safety of the public no person shall stand in the median,” another was quick to respond with this observation: 

“Or drivers could just not hit people on medians?  There’s a law against hitting people with your car already. In fact, more than one.”

There’s no question that the proliferation of panhandlers at intersections throughout Gainesville is generating a public backlash. We’re made uncomfortable by the sight of them. We don’t want to be bothered. We resent “these people” who would rather hold their hands out than get jobs. 

And sure enough, the day after this panhandler’s death, one city commissioner, Harvey Ward, told a luncheon group that he will pursue an ordinance to restrict panhandling. 

Apropos of nothing at all, the day before this latest Gainesville fatality occurred I was sitting in traffic on NW 13th St. and observed an elderly man with a walker slowly hobble across four wide lanes of stopped traffic. One thing I noticed was the line of fast-moving cars coming up behind him as drivers hurried to execute a left hand turn before the disabled man could get past the median and thus obstruct their progress. 

It’s not hard to imagine this elderly gentleman with a walker – or somebody very much like him – getting stuck on the same medium where that panhandler died.

What would they have said on Facebook? “One less cripple”?

I don’t mean to be insensitive. But the truth is that the very scene of this fatal “accident” – if that’s what we choose to call it – is itself an accident waiting to happen. 

Like many urban American stroads, the intersection of 16th and 43rd is intentionally designed to facilitate the fast and efficient movement of motor vehicles through the heart of the city. The speed limit on both of these intersecting corridors is 45 mph, which means that many drivers go even faster if they think they can beat the light. The median on which that panhandler lived his last moments is a narrow strip of concrete that offers scant protection against the constant flow of these unyielding masses of steel. 

Listen, I don’t care if the dead man was begging or just got caught in the median while trying to cross the street. It is no “accident” when the very street itself is “dangerous by design.”

I’ll defer to Strong Towns, the online group that does as much as any organization to point out the inherent dangers we have purposely created for ourselves when we design our towns and cities for the primary purpose of moving as many vehicles as quickly as possible while making all other considerations – saving human lives for example – secondary.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to get rid of urban stroads,” says a recent Strong Towns post. “They’re ugly. They’re frequently congested. They depress nearby property values. Most importantly, they’re deadly by design, because they inject high-speed traffic into an environment where people are likely to be present—on foot, in wheelchairs, on bikes or scooters.’

So we can condemn this unnamed panhandler if it makes us feel better about ourselves. But his death is just part and parcel of the bloody price we autoAmericans have collectively agreed to pay for our right to drive where we please as fast as we please. 

Last year alone, 6,222 pedestrians died on American streets…the highest pedestrian death toll since 1990. 

It is altogether too easy to consign this wretched panhandler to his grave with a casual “he got what he deserved” send off. But the truth is that we continue to slaughter thousands of people each year in our single-minded obsession with making the traffic run on time.

“As much as our culture loves to blame the victims, pedestrians aren’t responsible for their own demise,” says a recent commentary posted online by TalkPoverty. “Still, following each pedestrian accident, the comment stream centers blame on the victim…Instead of focusing on the structural problem of roads with increasingly heavy and fast-moving traffic or the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the culture at large points fingers at the road users who are most in danger.”

I can’t wait for my city commission to crack down on panhandling. That will surely solve everything. 

Still, I worry about the elderly gentleman I saw inching his way across four broad lanes of dangerous-by-design stroad. Will the Facebook jurors say it was his own fault when and if the law of averages finally catches up with him?

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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