Our View

Misplaced generosity? Trust your conscience

By From page A10 | July 13, 2014

The issue: It’s impossible to leave emotion out of the decision to help the needy

Even in a society as affluent as ours, and even in an especially well-off suburban garden like Davis, the problem of homelessness defies a permanent solution.

LIVING ON the margins of our idyllic little city, supported by an unusually extensive network of charitable agencies and a citizenry that prides itself on its compassion, there has always been a small population of homeless people, working under the tacit understanding that they can get along as long as they don’t become too visible.

A recent city staff report puts the “steady” Davis homeless population at 116 to 125, small enough that any short-term increase in activity or numbers immediately attracts attention, particularly from the downtown merchants whose business is most affected when panhandling and squatting are on the rise.

The police, meanwhile, justifiably worry about illegal encampments in parks and vacant lots, as well as the drug use and fire hazards that go with them.

The report details a particular concern that has long been whispered, but rarely spoken aloud in polite conversation — that Davis is a soft touch, an easy mark in an economically depressed environment that attracts homeless people from harsher environs. The report cites the city’s “stability of services,” cutbacks elsewhere and “Davis’ reputation as a generous and safe community” as reasons for an influx of panhandlers.

INTERESTINGLY, while it’s difficult to verify if the numbers really are increasing, local homeless people echo some of these points, having contacted The Enterprise to complain about “outsiders” moving in on their turf.

In any case, the anecdotal evidence is strong enough that a group of “stakeholders” (there’s a buzzword …) has gathered to deal with the issue. Representatives from the city, service providers, businesses and religious organizations have met twice and will continue to meet to try to come up with solutions.

Two initial ideas received mixed reviews. One was to rely on a “non-event fundraiser” model to supplement grant money for local nonprofits. More controversial is the idea to “educate” locals (and incoming college students) on where their money should be going.

The stakeholders want fewer handouts to individuals on the street and more going toward programs, under the premise that not only will the money be used more efficiently that way, but it will reduce the attractiveness of Davis as a destination for panhandlers.

The challenge for residents, of course, is differentiating between those who are homeless because of life’s difficult circumstances — joblessness, alcoholism, drug addiction — and the hustlers. Money, not help, is what the hustlers want.

BUT, AS WE SAID, this is a community where residents pride themselves on their compassion. When the call to help comes, nobody wants to be told not to open the purse strings. The idea of “educating” the populace received significant pushback from homeless advocates and ordinary citizens who saw it as unnecessarily heartless.

Encouraging more giving to organizations is certainly a good idea, and spreading the word among the homeless about how to access local services is important.

But telling people not to follow their conscience is, we expect, a lost cause. If Davis has a reputation for easy money, it’s been earned over decades of generosity; we don’t suspect we can “educate” it out.

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