Quandary 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 people’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.

2 thoughts on “Quandary

  1. I went to a Civic Innovation Lab break­fast where the woman who orig­i­nat­ed the cam­paign spoke. Her name is Lyn Cooper Tomaszewski and the name the ini­tia­tive is the Homeless Education Campaign. I thought she was rather in­tel­li­gent and com­pas­sion­ate, but as men­tioned at the talk, com­pas­sion doesn’t al­ways trans­late across sand­wich boards and leg­is­la­tion.

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