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Writer Says Letter Was Off the Mark

December 15, 1991

In a letter published Dec. 8, the writers referred to a poster in the window of my restaurant touting the "Better Way to Give" program of the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce. They were wildly inaccurate about its wording and thrust.

The poster reads: "No Panhandling. Resist the temptation. Give to programs, not panhandlers. We support the Chamber of Commerce program 'A Better Way to Give.' If you really want to help the homeless, give to Social Service Agencies, not to Panhandlers. Money given to Panhandlers goes toward alcohol, drugs, and other abuses. Social Service Agencies provide programs that work. Ask about 'A Better Way to Give' inside."

After eight months of intensive study and debate, the city of Santa Monica's official Homeless Task Force has endorsed the "Better Way to Give" program.

Homelessness and panhandling are two distinct issues. The public's confused perception that all panhandlers are homeless and all homeless are panhandlers must be corrected if progress is to be made toward housing our country's poor, and treating its indigent mentally ill and chemically ruined populations.

"Panhandler-haters" are loath to aid homeless people fearing it will encourage panhandling. Well-intentioned people toss a few coins to a panhandler thinking they are helping the homeless. Both points of view have validity, but are so limited that they cause harm. The writers' propagation of that damaging stereotype merely makes resolution more difficult.

Studies of panhandling usually conclude the overwhelming majority of panhandlers do so to foster substance abuse. Three regulars panhandle in front of my restaurant. They do so to procure alcohol. Each has passed out from intoxication on the restaurant's sidewalk. Twice, in the early hours of the morning, I have had to drag one from the gutter up onto a protected space near a building so that he would not be run over by a car trying to park. Another struck an employee who asked him to move from our bench.

I don't think it's right that people give these guys money--even with the most high-minded of motives--then expect me to clean up after they've destroyed themselves with the donation. Invite them over to party at your place for a few days and see how quickly your perceptions change. Also try Melody Beattie's excellent book "Co-Dependent No More."

The writers paint me as cruel, ignorant and paranoid for smearing "the entire homeless population." However, neither I nor the poster smeared anyone. Had the writers followed the recommendations of the poster and come inside and asked about "A Better Way to Give" before rushing to print, they would have been given a list of social service agencies that serve the homeless.

To conquer the problems of poverty and homelessness, pressure must be mounted for government action and affordable housing. But giving money to panhandlers is classic co-dependent behavior. Affirm life--give to charitable organizations, not panhandlers. It's a better way to give.

LOU MOENCH, Santa Monica. Editor's note: Moench is proprietor of Father's Office, on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.

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