These signs have been around Downtown for a month or so now. I still don’t quite know how I feel about them. I don’t know how bad the homeless/panhandling situation is here in Cleveland, and whether or not it warrants a campaign with this level of bluntness or scope. It is supported by The Homeless Grapevine, and various other homeless-targeted social service agencies, but it certainly doesn’t give off a very charitable vibe. The Downtown Cleveland Alliance [DCA] website offers some elucidation:
One of the ultimate goals of the campaign is to show a distinction between panhandlers and the homeless. Many of the panhandlers downtown are in fact not homeless and damage the image of the homeless that are in need. Our goal is to make sure peopleâ€™s generosity is not misguided, but rather goes towards organizations making a real difference. Instead of giving money to a stranger on the street, people can now donate money to help reputable organizations that have been providing food, shelter, counseling and job training to the homeless for years.
Nevertheless, it hurts to see those impersonal signs next to the panhandlers/homeless, on the streets. At the same time, it is an interesting chess game between this initiative and those it targets, and the territory being fought over is the moral mind of anyone walking the streets downtown. I’ve wrestled with this issue before, but now that there is another player it is easier to examine my own reactions to homelessness and charity.
The DCA is trying to curtail panhandling and simultaneously force the homeless to accept the social services available to them by removing the DCA’s main competition, folks who donate on the street. I’m not making a moral judgment here, just showing what I see as the mechanism behind this effort. The ads play on the guilt of passers-by, and absolve them for not giving while simultaneously offering them an alternative to assuage the guilt on their own by donating to the DCA.
The homeless/panhandler response has been instinctive and quite clever, I think. By just about every sign there are one or two homeless/panhandlers with their cups out. Their intentional juxtaposition completely subverts the intent of the sign and strengthens the guilt one feels by not giving. The sign, next to an actual human in need, seems inhuman. Too bad the whole situation is emotionally abusing to the battlefield. A bit hyperbolic in this situation, but:
When two elephants are fighting, the grass is what suffers.