“What’s wrong with the word HELP?”
By Eva McKnight
Jerry Hill has been holding a sign and pleading for help on the streets of Akron, Ohio for roughly a decade. He hates the label of “panhandler,” but was required to register as one in accordance with the city’s recently repealed ordinance, just to solicit donations so that he and his family could eat.
Hill is homeless and suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which is rapidly advancing and has prevented him from obtaining full-time employment. In order to make a meager living that is split between five people, Hill has endured countless abuses each day while asking for help:
“I’ve been stereotyped. I’ve had people throw things at me when I’m out there. I’ve been shot with a paintball gun, airsoft guns. I’ve had people throw batteries or penny rolls at my head. I’ve had people walk up and rip my sign. I’ve been told I’m a ‘worthless piece of shit,’ by a police officer, [and] refer to me as the ‘greatest con man of Akron.’ That damages your self-esteem. I’m already humbling myself enough to stand out there and say, ‘hey, I need help.’”
“How can you silence freedom of speech? How can you tell someone to ‘shut up’ when they are crying out for help?”
While the City of Akron has made positive advances by repealing its panhandling ordinance, many other municipalities continue to enforce similar laws. To those cities, Hill asks, “How can you silence freedom of speech? How can you tell someone to ‘shut up’ when they are crying out for help?”
Life wasn’t always this way for Jerry Hill. He remembers a better time when he was gainfully employed. But since his office was shut down and Hill lost his job, he and his family have spiraled further into poverty. In order to sustain his family, Hill’s earnings are crucial. “I’m forty years old,” he said, “and I hold a cardboard sign to provide for three or four people besides myself. I ask people for help, and if I get help, I help others.”
Hill has been accused of embracing homelessness rather than seeking a more stable situation. He responds, “Who chooses to stand on the corner and let people scrutinize them, and insult them, and be the target for ridicule for a society that is uneducated about the struggle of its people?”
Instead of perpetuating myths about people in poverty, Hill urges people to, “Go talk to someone. Instead of looking and judging, pull over. Go and talk to them. This is not the life I wanted. When the world is constantly knocking you down, how can you stand? What’s wrong with the word ‘help’?”
Read more about the ACLU lawsuit that challenged Akron’s anti-panhandling ordinance.
Hill urges other cities who have anti-panhandling ordinances to think about the voices and painful experiences of their most vulnerable citizens, who actively and publicly plead for help.
“Try to see it through their eyes. If you have a complaint about the people in poverty, talk with them. Show compassion. One of the best ways to get rid of a problem you don’t want to see, is to fix the problem, address it, and heal it. We become a strong nation, a strong county, when the weakest links are strengthened.”
Eva McKnight is a Master of Nonprofit Administration and Leadership Candidate at Cleveland State University.