Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The intersection of "Hope and Despair"

Historically, programs promoted under the banner of "urban renewal" have been eyed suspiciously by many poor and disenfranchised residents. In fact, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement African Americans often substituted "Urban Renewal" with the phrase "Negro Removal" as a way of expressing their distrust of city planners and racist policies designed to eradicate "undesirables" and make way for gentrification.

These days when one hears about new programs to shelter homeless city panhandlers, it's hard to know if they're sincere efforts by city officials, or merely Chamber of Commerce code for "Let's get these folks off the streets before the ruin downtown business." It's worth watching Baltimore's Downtown Partnership to see just where it falls on the spectrum. Partnership president Kirby Fowler's remarks that close the article makes one wonder. (GW)

Where a Quarter Can Buy a Little Hope

By Joel McCord
New York Times
November 26, 2006

BALTIMORE — The corner of Hope and Despair sounds like a meeting place out of a 1940s movie, but it is part of what Baltimore boosters say is the first attempt of its kind to fight panhandling.

The Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit alliance of local businesses, is installing recycled parking meters with fake Hope and Despair street signs along the busy strip between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, a route well known to tourists and panhandlers alike.

Drop a coin in the meter, and the needle jumps from “Despair” to “Hope.” But no matter whether it is a nickel or a quarter — or how many coins are tossed into a meter — hope flashes for only a few seconds before the needle drops to despair.

“That’s not to be discouraging or anything,” said Michael Evitts, a partnership spokesman, “but to make room for the next person who might want to drop in some change.”

The money in the recycled meters, which are painted green and blue and placed at least 10 feet back from the curb to avoid confusion with functioning parking meters, goes to Baltimore Homeless Services, the arm of the city Health Department that provides shelter and treatment programs for homeless people. The Downtown Partnership’s president, Kirby Fowler, said the idea was to let people help the homeless without giving money to panhandlers.

“A lot of people are inclined to help the homeless, which is laudable,” Mr. Fowler said. “But they aren’t so sure that their money would go to productive uses if they gave it to panhandlers. This way they’re sure the money will go to programs for the homeless.”

Not all the panhandlers in downtown Baltimore are homeless, but many of them are, and like many cities around the country, Baltimore is looking for a way to solve the problems associated with homelessness. A city Health Department census done one January night in 2005 found nearly 3,000 people looking for shelter.

Last week, City Council President and Mayor-elect Sheila Dixon and Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, announced the formation of a committee whose mandate is to come up with a plan to end homelessness in the city in 10 years.

Ms. Dixon, who will succeed Mayor Martin O’Malley when he is sworn in as governor in January, said the committee would look at programs like Housing First, which has been tried with some success in several cities. Housing First places those needing shelter in subsidized housing before they go to work on other issues — like drug abuse and mental health problems — that might have contributed to their homelessness in the first place.

“Once you can get housing, you have a place to stay, then you can get the other services you need,” Ms. Dixon said.

Officials in Philadelphia started a campaign to get homeless people off the streets in the late ’90s, committing $5.6 million for housing and treatment programs. Now the city spends about $17 million a year on homeless services, and the number of people sleeping on the street has been cut by two-thirds.

No one pretends that Baltimore’s brightly colored recycled parking meters will raise enough money to end homelessness in the city. But Mr. Fowler estimates that they will bring in several thousand dollars a year, salve the consciences of those who want to help the homeless but not give indiscriminately to panhandlers, and perhaps drive away the panhandlers themselves by drying up a revenue stream.

Panhandlers “mar the downtown experience,” he said. “So we’re trying to make it easy for people to say no to panhandling, but yes to helping the homeless.”


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