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Brother, Keep Your Dime : 2 Anti-Panhandling Efforts Seek to Redirect Donations to Agencies

July 11, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — The sugar bowls at Johnnie's pizza parlor on the Third Street Promenade hold four kinds of sweeteners and one message: "Say No To Panhandling."

The message, printed on cards tucked neatly behind the sugar packets at Johnnie's, is the theme of one of two new campaigns to curb panhandling in Santa Monica.

It is designed by Promenade merchants to educate the public that donating money to agencies that serve the homeless is a better way to help them, said Barbara Tenzer, a commercial real estate broker who organized the $6,500 effort.

Tenzer argues that giving to panhandlers begets more panhandling, which begets an angry, fearful public that responds by taking its business elsewhere.

Soon the eye-catching cards, counter displays and posters will have company: three 1,300-pound, life-size bronze dolphins that are the centerpiece of a second campaign to suggest an alternative to giving to panhandlers.

Designed by sculptor Peter Ehrlich, the dolphins and smaller models will function as piggy banks into which people will be urged to drop the coins they might otherwise give to a panhandler.

The Feed The Dolphins campaign is being organized and funded with $64,000 by the Bayside District Corp., the quasi-public agency that runs the Promenade.

And the message to "give where it really counts" will be delivered in a professionally produced public service announcement that will be shown in movie theaters.

Local businessman Mark Mawrence, a weekend surfer who created the dolphin theme, described it as a whimsical but powerful plea to residents to rethink their laudable but ultimately harmful urge to be generous to panhandlers.

"The kindness of strangers is a double-edged sword," Mawrence said. "I'm proud to be part of a community that cares. On the other hand, we had to deal with this thorny issue."

Why suddenly two new anti-panhandling campaigns when there had been none? The answer lies in the mushrooming of the problem, especially during summer--high season for panhandling. The town's schizophrenic relationship with its homeless problem also figures in.

Since nonaggressive panhandling is legal, coping with its pervasiveness in Santa Monica is, as in other urban areas, no easy task. Some argue, especially in liberal Santa Monica, that panhandlers are living testimony to the disgraceful way this country treats the poor, and that they should be left alone to make a living as best they can.

But to many, being asked for money every few feet is intrusive and perceived, even if wrongly, as a safety threat. Merchants and police say complaints have been pouring in and that early results of a survey point to panhandling as the key reason some people avoid the Promenade. Despite crowds, business there is suffering, merchants say.

"People are not coming back because they see this as a real scuzzy area," said former City Councilman Herb Katz, a board member of the Bayside District. "Certainly when eating outside on the patios, the last thing people want is to be panhandled for money."

While there is general agreement that the panhandling problem on the Promenade has gotten out of hand, some in the city's liberal power structure are uncomfortable with the tone of the merchants' message.

Some critics say they are turned off by what they see as the overly negative implications of the campaign.

For example, the "Say No To Panhandling" cards and posters include a line that says "Don't let your money be used for drugs and alcohol," which critics say lumps all homeless people into one unattractive category.

"It's not true every panhandler uses money for drugs and alcohol," said former City Councilman Dennis Zane.

Hence the warm-fuzzy dolphin alternative that doesn't actually come right out and say not to give money to panhandlers.

Still, the merchants forged ahead, saying they could not wait for the dolphins to be finished before addressing the problem. Tenzer said launching the program was the first cohesive effort she has seen by the business community to meet the ticklish issue head on.

Comparing the programs, Zane said the merchants' campaign focuses on the annoyance the problem creates while the dolphin message focuses on tapping people's sympathy for the homeless.

Police support both anti-panhandling efforts. Santa Monica Police Sgt. Gary Gallinot said that although not every panhandler uses drugs or alcohol, a lot of them do. "You perpetuate people's homelessness by giving them money, because most of it goes for drugs and alcohol, not food and shelter," Gallinot said.

Gallinot said he based his conclusions on his lengthy tour of duty policing the Promenade, where on a good night a panhandler can haul in as much as $100. "Panhandling has gotten worse over the years because it's gotten so lucrative for them," Gallinot said. "Where else can you make that kind of money?"

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