By: Tony Messenger
The man standing under the bus stop shelter on Washington Avenue was looking around, seemingly aimlessly, until he caught my eye.
I was walking to lunch downtown for the first time in months, trying out the process of coming back to the office, seeing co-workers, working away from home after the long COVID-19 respite.
“Do you have some spare change?” he asked. It was as though the man were welcoming me back to what used to be my daily environment. If you live or work in downtown St. Louis, or, really, any city in America, you’re used to occasionally having an unhoused person ask for money.
The biggest-hearted people I know are of two minds in how to deal with such situations. Some carry coins and small bills in one pocket, to hand out in such situations. Others follow advice that was issued a few years back by the St. Patrick Center, that giving people on the street money isn’t the best solution, better to direct them to a place with more robust services and give your money to those organizations.
I fall somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I offer some change, or leftover food in a to-go box. Oftentimes I say no, and then say “thank you” as I head on my way. I don’t know what I am thanking them for; but it’s my instinctive way of saying something polite. In some ways, though, I do thank those folks who remind me of the daily poverty around us.
On this particular day, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen was debating — if you can call it that — whether to hand out $500 in direct payments to poor people in St. Louis who could use a helping hand as they recover from the pandemic that is still raging around us. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones included $5 million for that purpose in a spending proposal for money coming to the city from the American Rescue Plan. Board President Lewis Reed opposed the payments.
Direct payments to people are a quick and effective way to infuse cash directly into the economy. It was that way when President George W. Bush issued such checks, and it was that way in the past two years as former President Donald Trump and then President Joe Biden issued such checks to help the country recover from the pandemic.
So when Reed picked this unnecessary fight by removing the $500 payments from the mayor’s proposal when it came to the Board of Aldermen, it seemed a battle he was destined to lose, if not legislatively, then in the court of public opinion.
That’s what happened Tuesday, as 17 aldermen mustered the votes to put the direct payments back into the spending plan. During a 12-hour meeting, Jones’ opponents suggested the money might go to drugs or booze, and that poor people needed lessons on how to properly spend the money. The loudest critic was Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who like Reed has lost against Jones in past elections. “This is a feel-good payment,” Boyd said, his voice rising. “This payment isn’t going to help anybody.”
New Alderman Bill Stephens, in a quiet but passionate plea that had the credibility of experience behind it, disagreed. “I was a homeless teen twice,” Stephens said. “$500 would have helped me.”
Alderman Bret Narayan echoed the thought: “I reject the notion that $500 can’t be transformational. It’s back-to-school money for kids. It’s Christmas existing for some families.”
Soon, about 10,000 St. Louis families will find out how transformational $500 can be. There are still some hurdles before the budget is final, but with Jones, Comptroller Darlene Green, and a majority of aldermen in favor of the payments, they are likely to happen.
Some people who receive the checks will pay bills; others will have a little fun; nearly all of the money will be pumped back into the St. Louis economy, just as President Biden and the congressional authors of the American Rescue Plan intended.
It was a legislative victory for Jones, but mostly, it was a victory for the people who will receive a cash infusion, maybe even the man I met that day on Washington Avenue.