"It's OK to say no." Kudos to those leading this campaign, including law enforcement officials and several Westside civic leaders. See Westside Pioneer article. It's about time people heard the facts that cops have known for years - that most panhandlers are scammers of one type or another. But it won't be an easy sell. Here are some reasons why:
It's human nature to give. Most people are decent, and most decent people have a generous streak. While donating money to a charity is nice, it doesn't have the same connection as placing it directly into the hands of a suitably down-and-out person at, for example, a shopping-center access and being rewarded with a balmy “God bless.”
Self-image. But let's face it. Generosity really isn't the whole story, is it? We like to feel good about ourselves. It can even be a way of defining who we are to others: “I give money to the homeless.” It has a self-gratifying ring to it, even sounds a little edgy. Which leads to the next point.
Semantics. All of you are of course careful readers, so you probably noticed the name switch in the previous paragraph, from “panhandlers” to “homeless.” That was intentional. How often have you heard someone say, “I give money to panhandlers”? It doesn't sound quite so cool, does it? Maybe makes the giver seem more like a gullible enabler? But I'd contend it's not just semantics, it's actually…
Politics. The term, “homeless” has become usefully amorphous over time. When stirring examples are required for public display, local charities can always trot out an earnestly needful family that's hit on hard luck. Kept in the background are the bums whose goal in life is
Media's angle. At most publications, a major goal is to win writing awards. This not only helps with current job security, it can lead to a better job elsewhere. So if you're a reporter and you're assigned to write a story on “the homeless,” do you immediately go interview the Avenue Task Force about what wastrels most panhandlers are? Only if you want your story to run on Page 37. No, more likely you romanticize that hard-luck family - glossing over problems they may have had with substance abuse, crime or financial irresponsibility - and work the adage that “we're all just a paycheck away” from homelessness. Now you've got Page 1 and maybe even a Pulitzer Prize.
Hard times. A common myth is that people need to panhandle because no jobs are available. Really? A recent Gazette news article reported how relieved Broadmoor Hotel officials are that a federal program will once again be available this summer to allow them to hire workers from outside the U.S. So clearly we've got an overflow of entry-level jobs in this town... which many local "homeless" are spurning.
It's too late. That statement may be true, but you'll never get me to agree. Let's look at it another way. What does it say about our community, having beggars everywhere and litter-strewn camps by our trails and streams? It hasn't always been that way, either on the Westside or in America as a whole. This was and is the land of opportunity, a place where people of all races and creeds can come together, enjoy its bounty and work to make it even better for our children. Understanding that was part of my own personal epiphany - a realization that our nation is not a static object, but a living spirit that needs constant infusion from its citizens. I have no problem with the “give a hand up, not a handout” message of “It's OK to say no.” But the words still imply that we somehow own the blight that panhandlers represent. Instead of productive people leaning down to them, it's about time they started reaching up, seeing the value in becoming productive themselves and appreciating, yes, what they've already been given.
(Posted 3/27/15; Opinion: Editor's Desk)
Kenyon Jordan is the editor of the Westside Pioneer.