Jewish World Review April 7, 2003 / 5 Nisan, 5763
Debra J. Saunders
San Francisco ought to be known as the city that surrendered --
surrendered to the homeless, surrendered to panhandlers and then gave up on
taking on the slow but steady spread of blight across this otherwise
stunningly beautiful city.
It's the rare politician who risks the nasty opposition of vocal
advocates for the Special City's dysfunctional population. Supervisor Gavin
Newsom sponsored Care Not Cash, a homeless reform measure designed to push
some General Assistance recipients into housing. Former Mayor Frank Jordan
also had supported ballot measures to curb aggressive panhandling and move
homeless aid recipients into housing.
Voters approved those measures, but then city politicians
contrived to undermine the voters' will by throwing up bureaucratic
roadblocks. Why not? There would be no citizen revolt. Taxpayers in San
Francisco don't even expect city politicians to pay attention to their vote.
It's easier to just keep walking past the proffered frying pans,
paper cups and extended palms that intrude on working people's lives and
have turned busy sidewalks into obstacle courses.
Critics charge that Supervisor Newsom's mayoral aspirations are
behind his new proposal to curb aggressive panhandling.
What a town. A city pol tries to do something about the pall
cast over downtown -- and his motivation is dismissed as venal ambition.
It's a message the panhandling apologists have instilled in many
San Franciscans: Panhandlers who want something for nothing, good.
Politicians who want pleasant streets for the citizenry, greedy.
Consider Newsom's nascent proposal: He wants to ban panhandling
on highway ramps, on median strips, near ATMs and in parking garages. For
that mild reform, he is vilified.
Newsom also proposes reducing the punishment for aggressive
panhandling by changing it to an infraction from a misdemeanor. The idea is
to improve the likelihood that S.F.'s district attorney -- currently,
Terence "Fluffy" Hallinan -- might actually prosecute those arrested.
Newsom notes how other cities have gotten a handle on their
homeless and panhandling populations. (The two populations, it should be
noted, are not the same. A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice paper reported
that only a "small percent of homeless people panhandle.")
While panhandlers seem to be on every corner, Newsom isn't
daunted. The problem, he said, is "disproportionately visible and
irritating, and easily identifiable," but he thinks the "net numbers of
individuals" aren't as challenging as one might think.
Newsom also has proposed a provision that allows the public to
give "basic-needs coupons that can be given to panhandlers in lieu of cash"
and redeemed for food, clothing, medicine and other basic necessities.
I understand why Newsom suggests coupons instead of cash, but it
makes more sense to urge residents and visitors to give their cash to
charities that provide sustenance and services to those who need them.
Charities won't swap clothes for drugs.
Newsom says he wants "education" to be a visible component in
his measure -- that's a diplomatic way of saying what the DOJ stated more
bluntly: "Panhandlers are drawn to communities where both free social
services and generous passers-by are plentiful."
Also, panhandlers are likely to spend the money on substances
that aren't good for them -- drugs, alcohol and junk food. Thus people who
give money to panhandlers aren't helping the guy with his palm out -- or the
city. It's feel-good, do-bad compassion.
Newsom remembers a local panhandler who recently died from a
drug overdose. "The person who gave Joe that last dollar probably drove away
feeling good about themselves."
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© 2000, Creators Syndicate