Downtown’s Homeless: What is the message? Who is the messenger?

…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me…

While I was in Boston last week, the DPC’s (Downtown Partnership) Kiosk Giving Task Force morphed into the Downtown Outreach Work Group.

As the next step, the Downtown Outreach Work Group recommends a public-private partnership effort amongst the Town of Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, the Downtown Partnership, the human service agencies, the downtown property and business owners, religious organizations, the media and others, to jointly develop “the message” to request that citizens not give money to panhandlers in downtown Chapel Hill but to encourage them to give to the agencies that address the human service needs of downtown.

Once the message is clearly articulated, then the means and materials needed to address the target audiences will be identified. This is similar to efforts across the country typically called Real Change Not Spare Change campaigns. Raleigh is our closest neighbor that has adopted this program.  In Denver, they have adopted the Give A Better Way campaign,; and there are a number of other variations on this type of educational initiative.

Though encouraging on the face of it, I’m a bit troubled that this Town-sponsored group has taken on the “official” mantle of managing downtown’s homeless population issue with very little discussion.

The DPC’s charter is business-oriented, their issues business-directed. Panhandling is antithetical to their core directives. I’m concerned that this in-built bias won’t result in further draconian efforts to drive “undesirables” from downtown.

Today’s thoughtful analysis by Council member Sally Greene highlights the potential pitfalls in her excellent post Panhandling and Community Values.

Not all approaches are appropriate as Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article “MILLION-DOLLAR MURRAY:Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.” points out.

Sure, I doubt our community would stand for criminalizing homeless support programs ala Las Vegas’ criminalizing feeding the hungry but it might blindly accept the recommendations of an important sounding group, like the Downtown Partnership, whose make-up and charter are not representative of the town as a whole.


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