If you care about people and the human ordeal, one of the hardest things to do is pass by a homeless person and deny him or her spare change or food. That's the advice from experts, however. We've heard it before, and in a recently published opinion piece, four experienced San Diego leaders write that giving food is “a barrier—not a bridge—to getting homeless individuals off the street and into stable housing.”
Local history has shown this PR crusade doesn't resonate well or garner long-term results. And a new push is off to a shaky start.
Above all, it's difficult to follow this advice. If approached while carrying a restaurant doggie bag in downtown San Diego, I always give it up to anybody who asks and looks like they genuinely need a bite to eat. Money, no. But how can you deny somebody a slice of pizza that's right there in your hand?
The young San Diego artist Inocente Izucar, whose own struggle with homelessness was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary short Inocente, says she once ignored a boy who asked her for money. It happened after she was off the street and was on her way to a screening of her movie. She felt like a hypocrite. She encountered the same boy later and stopped to talk and give him money. “I could see he was so happy just to have someone talk to him,” she says.
The op-ed piece that discourages handouts ran last week in The San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego Downtown News. It was co-authored by Deacon Jim Vargas, president/CEO of Father Joe's Villages; Miles McPherson, pastor of The Rock Church; Elaine Therrien, co-founder of Loving Spoonfuls; and Kris Michell, CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. Heavy hitters.
“When you see someone struggling the urge to help is undeniable,” says McPherson, in a public service announcement video on a new page on the Downtown Partnership's Clean and Safe website. “But providing meals to the homeless has unintended consequences. Serving food in the street can create a dangerous environment, health and sanitation problems.”
The McPherson PSA is aimed at church, school and other volunteer groups with good intentions. The message is that instead of organizing their own public feedings or clothes giveaways, groups should connect with experienced service providers.
To that end, there is the new San Diego Meal Service Program platform on the Downtown Partnership's website, under the Clean and Safe banner.
This program is modeled after Therrien's Loving Spoonfuls. Her nonprofit collects food and distributes it through Alpha Project and other providers. Presenting this model to the public could prevent overlapping efforts, she says. It's an excellent idea.
Lip service, however, is a waste of time, and for now that's all there is to the Meal Service Program. The website is underwhelming. The bare-bones site offers minimal incentive or explanation on how to get involved. A week after launching there were just two options listed for public participation.
Downtown Partnership Vice President of Communications Christina Chadwick says the site, which was created for free by a volunteer, is overseen by an unnamed staff member responsible for responding to inquiries and adding volunteer opportunity listings.
The newspaper op-ed piece says, “Think of it this way: You see someone fall overboard on a ship; would you throw them a life preserver or would you throw them a sandwich? Homeless individuals in downtown—many of who are struggling with addiction and mental illness—need services, not sandwiches, to truly turn their lives around.”
Gag. If only those trying to rescue passengers from the Titanic hadn't wasted so much time tossing sandwiches into the Atlantic Ocean. Frame the homeless question this way: You see someone hungry on the sidewalk; would you give them a sandwich or hand out the address of a toothless website?
This is not meant to encourage volunteer groups to flock to East Village street corners. Working with legit service providers is the ideal way to go. Perhaps this new program will shape up. But as it stands there's no indication it will deter public street feedings and has precious little meat on its bones.