Nothing like some controversy to stir up the community.
If you haven’t heard, the City of Bloomington recently installed 28 signs downtown that read, “Please help. Don’t encourage panhandling. Contribute to the solution.” The sign has a large no panhandling symbol in the middle and a web address at the bottom that links to a webpage which lists several organization combating homelessness, including Shalom.
As you can imagine, the responses ranged from gleeful support to adamant disdain.
The disdain led to several signs being defaced almost immediately and, within a few days, the theft of 24 of the 28 signs.
The most challenging issues are the most complex ones. As H.L. Mencken mirthfully reminded us, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong.”
I agree with the sentiments behind the signs – that’s it’s better to give to social service agencies working on solutions than to people panhandling on the streets. I’ve personally believed this long before I ever worked in a nonprofit and still believe it today. Social services agencies, including Shalom, are actively a part of the solution and need the community’s support to make it possible to help people in need to not only survive but get back on their feet and find long-term stability. (Full disclosure – Shalom publicly supported our inclusion on the City’s donation webpage and also generally supports the program.)
But I also don’t agree with the signs as designed. When I first heard about the signs, I thought they were going to be posters in store front windows, which makes more sense to me. But, posting high up on street posts these metal, government signs, which look very much like a “No Parking” or “No Littering” sign, gives them the feel of law and suggests criminalization, which I don’t believe was the City’s intent, especially since panhandling is a legally protected right. The large “No panhandling” symbol in the center also had the feel of “Don’t Feed the Animals.” I imagined the shame one of our homeless brothers and sisters might feel asking for change beneath one of those signs, hoping for a meal to eat, a motel room to stay that night, or hell, even a way to feed an addiction, which is a real need when you have one. As a group that is discriminated against perhaps more than any other, it didn’t feel like that fit the character of the Bloomington community I know and love. We are an actively open, generous, and kind community. This felt different.
I believe the City jumped the gun in installing the signs. I encourage the City to re-think them.
Recently, the City formed a Downtown Safety, Civility, and Justice Task Force, which includes downtown businesses, community patrons, people experiencing homelessness, social service agencies, government officials, and more. The task force is meeting to work on a whole host of issues that address these larger concerns. Why not bring this question to this group to resolve? Perhaps we can come up with a better approach. At a minimum, it would have the approval of a large number of people actively involved in the issue.
But, I also think it’s essential to “Keep Our Eyes on the Prize,” as the great adage from the Civil Rights movement encourages us.
Our most essential mission is to help people get back home.
And Shalom is doing that. Last year, our rapid re-housing program helped nearly 200 people, a third of whom were children, move off the streets, out of the shelters, and back into homes. Our homeless prevention program helped almost as many at risk of homelessness stay in their homes. Our Housing First/Crawford Homes program provides homes and supports for over 6o disabled, formerly long-term homeless men, women and children, ending more than 300 collective years of homelessness. In their first year, the adult residents of the program had a 65% drop in emergency room use and an 88% collapse in incarcerations as compared to the year prior while homeless. We’re expanding rapid re-housing this year to make an extra effort to end family homelessness. And Crawford 2, adding another 43 apartments for disabled, chronically homeless people, will open this late summer or early fall.
While downtown concerns are important, ending homelessness is the prize we seek. I hope you will join us in the effort.
Written by Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of the Shalom Community Center. To contribute to Shalom, please mail in a gift to PO Box 451, Bloomington, IN 47402-0451 or donate online here. If you’re interested in the question, “Should You Give Money to People Who Are Panhandling?”, you may want to read this.