Monday, November 14, 2016

Does Salem Need Another "Real Change" Campaign?

The Task Force Public Safety committee met last week for the last time.  They did not have a quorum, but, as the committees have been doing lately, they went ahead with the meeting, anyway. 

On the agenda was the Salt Lake City's Homeless Outreach Service Team.  It seems someone, we don't know who, thinks it would be a good idea for Salem to have another go at a "Real Change" campaign designed to "educate" residents that they should stop handing out cash at street corners downtown.

Some of you will recall the bust that was the first attempt at "Real Change" here in Salem.

It seems whoever thought trying again was a good idea did not bother to read SLC's very own evaluation of their program's underwhelming results, or ask themselves whether Salemites offer  gifts of cash mainly because they lack "education" that it's in fact not all that helpful.

Like much of what's come out of the Task Force, there's more than a little arrogance/paternalism in a proposal to "educate" people you haven't bothered to talk to.  

Add to that the fact that "panhandling", which is the focus of this program, has little if anything to do with homelessness.  (We've discussed previously our view that approaching homelessness as a "public safety" is neither useful nor appropriate.)  This program, however, promises to "educate" the public to believe that it does.

That's just counterproductive and frankly, stupid.

Salem residents offer cash to people who, by all appearances, are less well off than themselves because it gives them some degree of personal satisfaction; satisfaction that they're unlikely to get from feeding a meter.  That's why these campaigns don't reduce panhandling (which is their ultimate goal).

They also don't generate revenue.  "Camille", the rep from SLC's downtown business association who spoke by phone about the program, said the amount collected was "insignificant."  And it's only going to shrink as people cease to carry change (does anyone under 60 carry change?).

So what, exactly, recommends "Real Change" as a "proven strategy that will reduce homelessness"?  Is the standard that SLC did it?  Because there's nothing else that we can see to recommend it, and the Mayor-elect, who'd been invited to the meeting, seemed to agree.  "Take it to the downtown business group", was his advice, which is code for, "the City's not likely to pay for it."
The Mayor-elect was slightly more interested in a give-the-homeless-jobs program from Albuquerque, but no one on the committee knew much about it, including the "I want to respect everyone's time" chairperson, so there was not much to discuss.

Somehow we fail to see how it's respectful of everyone's time to invite Salem's mayor-elect and the City Attorney to hear about programs that the committee hasn't properly vetted or approved at a meeting where there isn't even a quorum.

For those who're interested, the focus of Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way" program is also panhandling, so, once again, not a strategy to reduce homelessness.  They way it works is someone drives a van around Albuquerque (a city of about 550,000) picking up as many as 10 panhandlers who are willing to work that day for $9/hr instead of panhandle.  Although the city's public works department is involved somehow, it appears that the program is run by St. Martin's Hospitality Center ("a nonprofit that connects people with housing, employment and mental health services").  The City gave St. Martin's a $50K grant for this program, which pays the salary and expenses of the van driver, with some left over for program participants' wages.  The work consists of things like weeding and "beautification."

The latest iteration of the Task Forces growing list of recommendations refers to these two anti-panhandling programs as the City of Salem's "plan" or "strategy."  Clearly, however, they're not.  They're just someone's idea of something, anything, that the Task Force can pretend to have studied and approved as a "proven strategy to reduce homelessness" so they don't come up "empty-handed" in February.

But which is worse?  Coming up empty-handed, or pretending you have something when you have nothing?  The Task Force should stop pretending about real change and get on with some real work.

[12/4 Update: the committee met again on 12/2.  There was a quorum.  Staff provided additional information on the "There's a Better Way" program (see above), including that St. Martin's pays the salary and expenses of the van driver.   Concerns were expressed about the efficacy of the program in getting people off the streets, and about the City running the program.  Dr. Janet showed up and told the committee they should recommend implementation, not further analysis.  When they seemed to be about to do that, she left.  The committee then recommended further analysis of both programs and adjourned.] 

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