Should I or shouldn’t I give money to people on the street?

It’s an age old question: do you give money to someone panhandling on the street? I heard Patty Stonesifer, former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on NPR recently talking about a Slate article she wrote with her daughter trying to answer this question. She argues that rather than giving handouts, we should get involved in addressing the root causes of homelessness:

Whatever actions or amount you end up committing—and I realize that amount will vary depending on your own income as well as other giving and life priorities—decide how much of that (money, time, or voice) you want to spend on the immediate needs of the folks in your neighborhood, on prevention efforts, and on public and political advocacy. Then make your commitment and give those dollars and that time to the best organizations you can find.

I have to agree that in general it’s preferable to get personally involved and focus “upstream” on the problem than simply the giving a few bucks when approached on the street. Not sure where to start? The National Coalition for the Homeless has a great fact sheet on How YOU can help end homelessness, full of practical ideas. Other resources for getting informed and involved are the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Corporation for Supportive Housing. As Patty mentions, you might want to get involved in local planning and advocacy efforts to end homelessness. You can see a Google map of where 10-year plans to end homelessness have been completed here.

Of course, these long-term solutions won’t keep people from approaching you for money on the street, and it can be difficult to turn them away. A number of years ago, I went for a bicycle ride with a friend and got a flat tire. We were about 10 miles away from home, and I didn’t have a cell phone so I needed to make a call at a pay phone. But, I didn’t have any money with me, so I had to beg for a few dimes. It took several times of rejection, with people either just looking away or doing their best to politely say “no” before a kind soul bailed me out. I felt I was “deserving” of help, not someone making up a story to get some money to satisfy an addiction, but some people didn’t believe me. Have I done the same? Should it matter is someone is “deserving” in my eyes?

What do you think?

Report from New Orleans, Part I: A national disgrace and local dreams

An abandoned home in the Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans
An abandoned home in the Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans

I spent a couple days in New Orleans this week learning about the recovery effort from Katrina. It was, in a word, stunning. I was stunned by the endurance of the devastation more than three years since the storms, as well as by the resilience and passion with which residents are rebuilding their great city. Katrina ended and destroyed thousands of lives and ruined thousands of homes and businesses. Moreover, it generated a national dialogue on poverty and race, the ugly issues we don’t like to discuss in polite company. I remember hearing from friends in developing countries who saw the coverage of Katrina in 2005 that they were shocked to see that such poverty existed in the U.S. Yes it did exist and let me tell you that it still does.

We toured several of the most affected neighborhoods, such as Gentilly, Lakeview, and the Lower Ninth Ward, where we saw just islands of homes in a sea of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. There is a lack of street life in these formerly dense neighborhoods, with buildings waiting for repair or demolition and a general sense of trepidation in the air. Looking even closer, there is despair. We entered abandoned buildings – old homes, vacant public school buildings, even a city-owned property – with homeless outreach workers and saw evidence of people sleeping in dark, smelly, rubble-filled spaces that barely offer a roof over their heads. In one room in a large public building, one person had set up a mattress (hauled up three flights of stairs) with a few worldly possessions, including a metal bar next to the mattress that we could only guess was for personal defense. We met and spoke to elderly disabled people living in the most precarious conditions, happy to have someone showing interest in them, but hoping for a more permanent solution.

Katrina has obviously exacerbated long-standing poverty and housing challenges in the city. According to the latest New Orleans Index, there are about 65,000 abandoned or blighted properties in New Orleans, fair market rents have increased by nearly 50%, and almost 14,000 people in the region are at risk of a severe housing crisis when their Disaster Housing Assistance Program vouchers are set to expire in March 2009. Perhaps most telling is that the homeless population in New Orleans has doubled from about 6,000 to 12,000 since Katrina (while the overall population is at just 70% of that before the storm).

Despite these challenges, there is evidence of hope. I asked Albert Ruesga, who recently moved to New Orleans to serve as CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, about the most surprising thing about the city that he has noticed, and he pointed to the deep pride and sense of place that residents have. Coming from California , where everybody is originally from somewhere else, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana. We witnessed this local pride in the form of renovated homes by property owners fortunate to have insurance or other means to rebuild and beautify their homes (Mardi Gras is coming up, after all). Civic, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders are coordinating to make key investments in building affordable housing and a viable community development system. We saw first hand the smart, compassionate work of outreach workers from UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which is leading the charge to move chronically homeless people from the streets or abandoned buildings to permanent supportive housing. Public sector funds have unfortunately been slow to get on the ground; but at least the city government is beginning to think more holistically about their work and interface with private and nonprofit efforts.

The Lower Ninth Ward, still largely vacant more than 3 years after Katrina
The Lower Ninth Ward, still largely vacant more than 3 years after Katrina

The problems facing New Orleans are great, but from the short time I was there, I saw evidence that its people are stepping up to the challenge. But, they need our help. In a future post, I will highlight some ideas on what you can do to help in the recovery effort in New Orleans . If you have thoughts to share, please let me know.

The demise of the print newspaper and local coverage

The Los Angeles Times has been an important source of stories, information, and opinions on trends related to poverty and inequality, but the recent announcement by the paper that it will stop printing the separate California section with local and state coverage does not bode well for the state of news and dialogue in Los Angeles. I’m not alone in this concern. Local officials and civic leaders are pleading with the Times to keep the section. LA City Councilman Eric Garcetti even started a Facebook group called Save the LA Times California Section, which now has nearly 1,500 members.

This move by the Times is of course part of a larger restructuring in journalism and the newspaper business, and it has forced me – a loyal subscriber for the 15 years – to consider ending my home subscription to this newspaper. While the Times of several years ago would take me hours to get through and would fill me with valuable information and analysis on both professional and personal interest issues, the latest incarnation leaves me unfulfilled. Microeconomic theory dictates that it should be entirely rational for me to part ways with the Times, but I still can’t seem to bring myself to make the call to cancel my subscription.

Where does this loyalty come from? Partly, it clearly remains a vital source of information for me on issues I care about. Perhaps more importantly, though, like many things in life, I think it can be explained by experiences and aspirations in my family life.

Some of my earliest memories of my childhood are of the local newspaper spread around the breakfast table, my parents and three older siblings looking through various sections of the paper. It’s something that stuck with me ever since. I’ve never been one to dash out in the morning to school or work without first satisfying my two addictions, coffee and the newspaper.

My therapist wife says my morning newspaper ritual is my method for “self-regulating” to maintain a relatively healthy mental state. My addiction was actually quite a source of domestic conflict early in our marriage, as my wife saw breakfast as a social time of conversation, something not possible while I read the Times. Eventually, she relented and became a loyal reader herself, certainly an important reason she has been integrated into my family so well. To this day, when my siblings and our families gather at my parents’ home, breakfast and newspaper-reading are one activity we still share in.

Like any two-worker family with kids, our household in the morning is somewhat chaotic. Preparing lunches and getting out the door with the kids, ages 9 and 5, in time for school so we can get to work is challenging enough. Making time to eat some breakfast and read at least the Main and California sections of the Times before getting out the door is even harder, but thankfully we manage to do it almost every day (though I should admit it becomes easier with every slimming-down of the newspaper!).

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed how the tradition is, rather unintentionally, getting passed on to our kids. The first thing they do almost every morning upon entering the kitchen is look for our area of the city on the weather map on the back of the California section and declare what the forecast is for the day. Our nine-year-old has begun to venture into the Sports and Calendar sections from time to time to see how his beloved Galaxy have done or to check on the latest blockbuster from Pixar. I’ve realized that this is why I haven’t been able to bring myself to cancel my subscription to the Times: it’s too important for helping my kids become literate, curious, and concerned members of our society.

Sure, we could get our news for free at latimes.com and other websites (and I do). But reading on a computer screen just doesn’t hold a candle to reading a newspaper or book in your hands. Moreover, in this era of text messaging and quick-snippet communication, we risk creating a generation of young people who don’t know how to read or write analytically. I believe newspapers remain an important component in our social, civic and educational fabric. They help us understand what’s happening in our community and what valiant people are doing to improve it. To the decision makers at the Times, I implore you: please do not gut this paper any more. Our kids and community are counting on you.

Rising demands for food and shelter

I attended a session this week on food and housing needs in Los Angeles with a panel of experts from both public and nonprofit agencies. What they had to share was truly scary.

  • According to Miguel Santana from LA County, there has been a 30% increase in homeless families in the past year (which they know from looking at applications to the county for CalWORKs – i.e. welfare benefits – with no home address), and applications for CalWORKs are up about a third over all.
  • Michael Flood shared that community sites that distribute food to the hungry supplied by the LA Regional Food Bank have seen a 41% increase in demand. Data from 2007 show that there are about 1.2 million people who are “food insecure” in LA County; but that number has surely risen with the economic crisis.
  • Maribel Marin explained that 211 LA County, a three-digit dialing code that connects people to information and referrals on health and human service programs throughout Los Angeles County, has seen rapidly increasing numbers of callers over recent months. For example, operators typically receive less than 1,000 calls a month from families looking for emergency shelter; from May to December of last year, however, the number of calls rose steadily each month to nearly 2,000.

Behind these numbers are real people who are suffering, and with every notice of more layoffs and foreclosures, the crisis grows. One member of the panel said astutely that the real driver in the crisis for people is not unemployment or some other occurrence; it is desperation, the feeling that you have done everything you can to get help but have failed.

More than ever, we need a strong safety net to help the most vulnerable bounce back up and get on their feet again. Unfortunately, the latest indications from Sacramento are not positive. For detailed analysis of what the Governor’s proposed budget would mean for the social safety net in our state, see the California Budget Project’s latest report, Uncharted Waters: Navigating the Social and Economic Context of the Governor’s Proposed 2009-10 Budget

There but for the grace of God go I

Today’s L.A. Times op-ed page had a touching account from Les Gapay, a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal, of how precious a permanent home is.  Les, someone will all the qualifications to be successful in this knowledge economy, found himself homeless 6 1/2 years ago:

“It was surprisingly easy to become homeless. A recession hit, and my freelance writing and public relations work dried up. By June 2002, I could no longer afford my rent, and so I had to give up my apartment.

At the time, I thought that living in my Toyota pickup truck would be temporary. But finding an affordable place to live proved overwhelmingly difficult, as I wrote in an Op-Ed article for this newspaper on Thanksgiving Day. With most of my belongings in storage, I camped at public campgrounds and once in awhile at a Wal-Mart parking lot, staying in the deserts of Southern California in the winter and spending summers in Montana, where I had once lived.”

Thankfully, his story has a happy ending, as he recently secured a spot in senior housing in Rancho Mirage, allowing him to recover his things he had placed in storage years ago and enjoy the simple joys of having a stable place to live.

“Every day now seems to me like a gift. One of my delights was finding my toaster and having an English muffin with jam, a morning routine that belonged to my former life. I am eating healthier meals now that I don’t have to rely on fast-food outlets. I use the heated pool and hot tub to sooth my aching muscles.”

As Les concludes, he did what he could to survive and got the help he needed. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of people in our country who have not gotten the help they need, and the situation today is even more dire.   Les’s misfortune resulted from the recession of 2001-2, which paled in comparison to the meltdown we’re experiencing today.

You can read his entire column here, as well as his piece published on Thanksgiving (“Homeless but not Hopeless”) here.

Deep Poverty in the U.S.

The current economic crisis (punctuated with the loss of 60,000 jobs in one day!) is generating financial insecurity for people at most income levels, swelling the ranks of the poor and working poor in this country. What about for the most vulnerable people, those who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness? Several recent reports have taken to measuring “deep” or “extreme” poverty to get at this. Defined as persons living with incomes at half the official poverty thresholds (that translates to just $5,200 for an individual and $10,600 for a family of four – hardly enough to meet even basic needs of food and shelter), this poverty measurement can be helpful in analyzing conditions for the most vulnerable in our society.

According to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the current recession could produce up to 6 million new entrants into deep poverty – including about 1 million families with children. The National Alliance to End Homelessness uses the extreme poverty measurement to predict that the recession could lead to an additional 1.5 million people experiencing homelessness in the next two years in the U.S. Closer to home, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles recently released a research brief showing that, according to the 2007 American Community Survey, nearly 600,000 people in L.A. County live in extreme poverty, a number that has surely risen given the recent job loss and financial insecurity in California. The brief also shows that the number of people receiving food stamps has risen sharply over the last year, growing to nearly 700,000 by the end of October.

With historically-low unemployment levels but with growth in low-wage jobs over recent times, a major challenge has been working poverty, i.e. people who are working but making just barely enough to survive. But with unemployment rates rising sharply and businesses slashing jobs or failing altogether, extreme poverty – typified by rising hunger and homelessness – could be our biggest challenge over the foreseeable future.

Introduction to this blog on Poverty and Inequality

I have finally succumbed to creating my own blog.  The blogosphere is a forest full of inaudible fallen trees, so I do this with some trepidation. However, I have been encouraged in this endeavor by several people over recent months who have expressed deep appreciation for my practice of emailing out links to articles and reports on the Web that they may find of interest.  Those of you who know me well (and probably even some who don’t) have probably been subjected to this.  I am deeply concerned about making this world a better place, and one way I try to do that is by sharing resources for understanding what’s going on in this crazy world and what we can do about it.  Going forward, I hope this blog will help organize and memorialize those types of information resources (both for myself and others) and provide a space for discussing them.

Because this is a somewhat presumptuous (egotistical?) enterprise, let me with great humility invite you to visit this blog and participate with me in learning about the scourge of poverty and inequality in our world and what we can do about it.  I don’t have aspirations for this to be a top 10 blog, but rather something useful for my network of friends and colleagues concerned about these issues.  You can visit the blog on the Web whenever you like or subscribe via e-mail or (if you’re really blog-savvy) to the feed.  If you have suggestions, comments, or critiques, please let me know via comments on the blog or through e-mail.  I hope to post pretty regularly, though probably not every day, but I will try to be as responsive to your questions and requests as soon as possible.   Thanks for joining me on this experiment and journey.  Peace.