On a recent stroll along Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, we noticed a big, bright-yellow sign displayed in a shop window. The sign urged people to "resist the temptation" of charity and refuse to donate their spare change to homeless "panhandlers," flatly stating that any direct donation given to a needy person will be used for drugs or alcohol abuse.
This sign was posted in the window of Father's Office, a trendy neighborhood bar existing solely to facilitate the consumption of alcohol. Sponsored by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, the sign implies that the reason Americans increasingly find themselves destitute and without food and shelter is their own vice, and that they should be punished by a refusal of charity, effectively announcing that stinginess is the cure for the ills of poverty.
The sign also argued that those who feel that they must give should make their donations to unspecified Chamber of Commerce "programs" that assist the homeless, but did not state how these programs work or what and how much they provide for the homeless, leaving the reader and potential donor ignorant as to whether they do enough. Nor did the sign provide information so that homeless readers could have easy access to such programs. The deadbeats are lucky to get anything, the sign implied.
To smear the entire homeless population as drug addicts and alcoholics reflects an ignorant, cruel and paranoid perspective. Most are without shelter because of combined effects of un- or underemployment, inadequate social support programs, the exorbitant cost of housing and health care, and lack of government attention to the entire subject of poverty.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about the sign is that this is the holiday season, a time when even the stingiest of us reflect on the virtues of sharing, giving and charity. Unfortunately, of all people, the homeless are those who are least likely to benefit from this upwelling of seasonal generosity. To a homeless person, that sign says loud and clear: "Happy Holidays, but not to you!"
CRISTINA DELLA COLETTA