Friday, July 25, 2008

nuvo on panhandling

nuvo (or at least seems to be having issues, causing its weekly email update to go out on friday afternoon (two days after the paper edition). but at least i got the email, because otherwise i would've missed this story on the city's campaign against panhandling, which is excellent. it's much more in-depth than anything that's appeared in the star or IBJ, and actually includes some criticism of the project (gasp!).

here's a key criticism, which i don't think i've seen in print anywhere other than this blog:

Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of social justice-based homeless advocacy groups in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles, opposes the donation box approach and the accompanying efforts to rid the streets of "undesirable" individuals.

"You can't replace the immediate needs of individuals by giving to bureaucracy," Boden believes.


"The idea that programs like these boxes and meters are a good way to help the homeless seems to suggest that the governments who propose them see homelessness as the individual's problem," says Boden, who was homeless himself for a while, and believes this approach to "helping" is "incredibly callous, discriminatory and classist."

One of the actual roots of this problem, according to Boden and many other homeless advocates, is decreasing funding for affordable housing.

"If you don't address the cause, whatever program you adopt isn’t going to have its desired effect," he said.

boden goes on to state that "these meter projects are really about pushing the homeless out of downtown areas", something i've been arguing for some time now. i'm sure the homeless advocates who are in favor of the program mean well and don't feel that way—as they insist in the article—but mayor ballard has stated explicitly that his primary motivation is "to get them out of Downtown so that citizens and visitors don't have to look at it".

here's another important bit:

Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology professor at IUPUI, has serious reservations about the boxes campaign. Since 2003, Zimmerman has been doing research on the archaeology of the homeless.


From his own research, Zimmerman has seen that in general many people who mean well fail to understand the complexity of the problem because they just have no idea of how the homeless really live.

Zimmerman and his research assistant Jessica Welch recently published an article based on their research, which examined the types of items homeless individuals often leave behind in their temporary shelters. A large number of toiletries are frequently found, most often donations from local churches.

"For the homeless not to have greasy hair or not to smell would make them easier to deal with," Zimmerman notes, "but the reality is that using hair conditioner isn't all that realistic when you don’t have water."

Similarly, their research found that while churches often bring the homeless canned food, they also rarely think to bring can openers and, as a result, much of the food ends up thrown away.

In much the same way that these types of well-intentioned donations reflect a lack of understanding of the practical daily needs of the homeless, Zimmerman and others worry that the boxes reflect a misunderstanding of homeless people who live their lives outside of the shelters and are being excluded from the money raised by the boxes campaign.

"The shelters are part of the solution but not the whole solution," Zimmerman says.

Demand frequently exceeds supply where shelters are concerned, particularly in bad weather. It is not rare for homeless individuals to be turned away from area shelters for lack of space. And with limited resources, those who need help the most are often unaware of social service providers or even the locations of shelters. Still others are unwilling to adopt the usually religious, often stringent, conditions attached to accepting help at a shelter.

"As often as not," according to Zimmerman and Welch, "people don't go to the service providers because that can involve certain 'costs' that they would rather avoid." These costs often include subtle forms of religious indoctrination that accompany accepting a bed at one of the shelters (all of the overnight shelters in Indianapolis are operated by religious groups). Other "costs" are the regimentation and rules that even secular centers may impose, that often "feel like jail."

i could quote more, but i've probably quoted too much already. just go read the article.

update: when i wrote that i hadn't seen these criticisms "in print anywhere other than this blog", perhaps i should've looked around a bit first. kelley curran made some of these points in the news tribune, as did dustin at a blog called on the margins, both from a christian perspective. and while the star's news coverage didn't include much criticism, dan carpenter did a column about the issue last month.


Anonymous said...

While I am not without compassion, I don't exactly feel free when I'm being cornered to be shook down for change as I walk downtown or go to the gas station. It gets really old.

I like the idea of the boxes, which could simply publish the location of where/when the money would be distributed at a local shelter within walking distance of the boxes.

Anonymous said...

Two short comments. [1] Perhaps if some of the "wonderful" Christian organizations did not make hungry people sit for an hour and have scriptures yelled at them then there might be a better reception. [2] Secondly, as a downtown resident, the mess in and around the Wheeler Mission alone shows why this issue needs to be addressed. The Wheeler Mission refuses to do anything about the loitering, trashing, public urination, filthy language, sexual remarks made to passing women, and the non stop panhandling even though it occurs daily on their own front door steps. It is a 24 hour a day operation. The sooner the Wheeler Mission is shut down, the better it will be for both downtown and the homeless.