Oh, the changing currents of the City of Santa Monica’s relationship to the homeless. One minute our town leads the way in providing safe haven, the next we’re making it illegal to sit or lie down in doorways. Then the free food starts to disappear. Now we’re going to have city rules for begging, something that might have prompted an additional song in the musical “Oliver” if it were to debut today:
“Been on my feet all day, sir / Can’t sit down, no way, sir / Coppers say the good folk need the bench…”
Our city council has voted unanimously to prohibit solicitation by anyone sitting on public chairs or benches on the Promenade or its neighboring streets, Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard. If you want to panhandle, you will stand up to do it.
Panhandlers: At one end of our spectrum of caring we give a dollar because begging seems to indicate that the person with their hand out has, for whatever reasons, hit a wall. At another point on that spectrum, many would happily give more if the street person — real or acting — first agreed to take some yet-to-be-developed spot substance abuse check. At all points, there is an element of not wanting to be played for a sucker. Or an enabler. Or a fool.
I’ll confess to being tight-fisted when I note that panhandling activity is most intense at high traffic locations for families, or outside a bank, or near an event supporting another worthy cause. The panhandler may have real problems, but determining the best location for pressing your guilt button is not one of them. And I’m just plain upset when female panhandlers bring small children with them to paint a more desperate portrait. Whatever one’s circumstances, there is always some immediate assistance that doesn’t involve children used as props.
The “Panhandlers Rise!” ordinance must be approved on a second reading, most likely coming next month. The official emphasis of the ordinance is to free up limited public seating. In a photo accompanying a story on the measure appearing in the L.A. Times, a panhandler sits on a Promenade bench with a cardboard sign related to “donations.” Behind him one can clearly view an empty bench.
But that’s fine, since everybody’s on a page about what we’re up to. By the way, other cities are banning solicitation at busy intersections and in public parking lots. Cities filled with good people who truly want to help someone who’s down. So the deeper question may not be new rules impacting opportunities or seated comfort levels for panhandlers, regardless of their true or real situations. Rather it might be whether our hearts are getting harder or we are acting from some better informed view. Are we wiser, or colder? And… is Santa Monica looking to get something unpleasant out of view.
The “commie” in me thinks we’re all a little homeless when anyone sleeps on a sidewalk or goes hungry… and there’s such a thing as hotels with rooms starting at $400. Santa Monica may currently be turning a cold shoulder toward homeless panhandlers or panhandlers presenting themselves as homeless. But Santa Monica does, by God, pay close attention to the constituency that enjoys and uses $400 hotel rooms. While the Bayside District Corporation urged the city council to consider the stand-only panhandling restriction, they didn’t need to back it with any costly survey telling the council that European tourists would prefer not to encounter ragamuffin panhandlers on their way to brunch.
In its smaller and more detailed chapters, human history will note that for ages winos have asked those better off for some change to buy a jug. In that most narrow and specific example, we arguably do not “help” that person with our dollar. But we don’t help ourselves if we buy into any thinking that believes out of sight means fixed or handled or gone. Ours is a town that needed Heal the Bay to tell us that fecal matter, even when it doesn’t float, takes the fun out of beaches. True, there is a place in California where there are no panhandlers or any visibly troubled people of any kind. And anyone who’s been there will tell you it’s great. It’s in Anaheim and except for the occasional roller coaster accident… it’s an absolute dream come true for tourists.