Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne, as featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel
Roger Dodger is a neighborhood treasure on Milpas St, the closest thing we have to a celebrity. He wrote this in his Monday Scanner Report:
I heard someone say ‘If you have any spare change at all you could make the day of a poor homeless person.’ I turned and there were five grown men who looked very healthy, I burst out laughing in their faces. I don’t have any spare change anymore and it’s not my problem that they are houseless. Some people out there are really hurting I wouldn’t hesitate to help someone I knew was down on their luck but these guys looked like a bunch of con men and they ain’t getting a dime outta me.”
Roger is onto something.
Last week, a panhandler was sitting under the old drive-thru window at the McDonald’s on Milpas, and a nice couple gave him money. I asked him please not to panhandle there, on private property. That earned me a holier-than-thou lecture from the couple. They just wanted to help him! How dare I ask him to move!
Translation: they just wanted to feel good about themselves. We all do. It’s human.
Minutes later, he jaywalked across Milpas to a liquor store, and spent their ‘donation’. He then shuffled into a residential area to drink his purchase. I am sure the families there appreciated him drinking on their corner, and his empty bottle on their sidewalk. I called the police on him, for drinking in public. They didn’t come, but if they had, they would just have written him a ticket. I know him, and he’s gotten tickets for inebriation on Milpas. When he eventually gets enough tickets, the restorative police will take him to restorative court, where he’ll hopefully go into a program. I don’t know what that magic number of tickets is. But we’ll get to deal with him continually until then.
He’s one of many that we see every day, racking up police time, getting inebriated in parks, near schools where the kids can see them at recess, on residential streets, in front of businesses, and so on.
That’s what panhandling creates for a neighborhood. I wish the charitable couple had stuck around to watch these activities, but they’d sped off in their car, probably to a neighborhood without panhandlers, righteous in their generosity, completely oblivious to the damage they’d just inflicted on the area.
Panhanding is a constant frustration on Milpas, and State. There’s no law against it. Anyone can stand on a sidewalk with a sign, protected by the first amendment. I totally understand the urge to give to panhandlers. You think ‘gosh, all that guy needs is a hot meal, or a few bucks to get him through, while he hunts for a job, or gets where he’s trying to go. I can help.’ I used to hand my child money to give panhandlers, to teach her to help those less fortunate.
One day, I realized I’d been giving some of the same guys money for years.
Clearly I wasn’t helping. My contributions had changed nothing in their situation. When I saw some of them drinking in my neighborhood, I realized I was making things worse because I was enabling this behavior. I was part of the problem.
I see nice people on State freely handing over cash to the pit bull grunge set that lounges about on that RDA-sponsored concrete structure in front of the Habit. I think it was supposed to be public art or something. Now it’s outdoor furniture for panhandlers. The kids panhandle to buy cigarettes, weed, food, booze, and hang about all day, heckling passers-by that don’t give them money.
You can see people’s reactions to it. The police can’t stop it –free speech and all that. The city won’t rip out the RDA-public-art-nuisance thingy. No organization I’ve contacted seems to want to use it to hand out tourist materials, or do voter registration. It’s public space that’s lost to the public. At night, the grunge-youth-with-dogs amble over to the freeway encampment off Castillo and crash there, or jump the fence into Mission Creek to camp under the Gutierrez St bridge.
Naturally, there’s never an environmentalist conveniently nearby to protest.
But seriously, is this what you wanted to finance when you handed that donation to the panhandler?
Giving to a panhandler might temporarily reward your sense of selflessness and generosity, but when you understand the collateral damage it causes to surrounding areas, can you still hold on to that sense of feel-good?
If you really want to help, volunteer at a shelter. Serve dinner. Take time to get to know a homeless person, and encourage them to get sober, or come indoors. Give them socks, or some food.
Giving money may make you feel good temporarily, but if you’re not taking responsibility for what you’ve created, you’re not helping.