The black box fix

The Asheville Downtown Association’s Spare Change for Real Change project aims to redirect donations away from panhandlers and toward local organizations working on behalf of the homeless. The ADA has recently placed small black boxes around downtown that people can put money into instead of giving it to a panhandler. I’m all for helping the homeless, but there are a few troubling things about this initiative.

The first thing that struck me about the campaign was the negative message it gives about direct charity to panhandlers. In their ads posted in the windows of businesses, the Downtown Association reminds people that they don’t necessarily know if their donations are actually helping a homeless individual, rather than enabling self-destructive behaviors. This is a valid point, but look at it from a homeless person’s point of view. Your fellow citizens are being told not to help you in your time of direst need because some people in your social group misuse that help. On that level, it seems like a form of social profiling—and a gut-punch to one of the most vulnerable sectors of our populace.

It also seems worth noting that the Downtown Association fought tooth and nail to make panhandling illegal in Asheville to begin with—another low blow to a homeless person’s ability to make it through another day with something in their stomach. And it appeared to be done purely in the name of aesthetics and business interests. From this perspective, it’s understandable why so many of the people I’ve talked to on the street seem not to trust this project. It’s hard to focus on finding long-term answers to your problems when you’re struggling so much with the here and now, and seeing one of the available short-term solutions threatened can be scary.

Meanwhile, our society as a whole seems to be leery of any program that smacks of the “culture of entitlement,” and mistrust of government is rampant. In a Gallup poll commissioned by the Los Angeles Mission some years back, 66 percent of respondents said that “effective solutions for the homeless should come from the private sector in the form of charities,” with only 28 percent believing that our government would do a better job. Still, ours is a very tricky society in which to start from scratch, and somebody clearly needs to step in if we expect to see homeless people get back on their feet again en masse.

Asheville does have a wide variety of nonprofits working to help the homeless get back on their feet or to keep people from ever finding themselves in that position to begin with. And certainly, providing more funding for these programs is a worthy goal. At this point, however, no nonprofits have even applied to receive donations from the Spare Change program, ADA President Dwight Butner reports. That leaves potential donors right back where the ADA says they were before—not knowing where their money is actually going or what it’s accomplishing. It seems ironic that a program designed to support long-term solutions for the homeless is still only a rough plan itself.

In answer to my e-mailed questions, Butner wrote that the Asheville Downtown Association Foundation “will begin receiving applications in September or October” to initiate the process of deciding where the money will go. Butner, who’s also a candidate for City Council, noted that “100 percent of all moneys collected through the boxes will be distributed to the selected agencies.” The foundation also plans to “recruit local businesses and charitable foundations to match what is collected through the boxes,” he said, with an eye toward making those small donations start to seriously add up.

An imperfect plan can still be an admirable one, and in fairness, we ought to give them some time to see what good they can accomplish. But until this project has proven itself effective, let’s not fall for the argument that we can’t trust ourselves to give directly to folks in need. A slice of corn bread, for example, has never enabled a bad habit.

[UNCA graduate Rob Close is an enthusiastic rock hound who teaches kids about health and nutrition through the Allied Wellness Education Network’s Vegetable Circus program.]

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