OPINION: Should we hand out sandwiches or bootstraps to the hungry?

From the 1.16.13 issue. Opinion page


Last week I wrote about gun control, one of the most divisive and polarizing issues of our time. Now I’ll consider another, homelessness, and what our society can, or should do about it. It’s a subject often on the minds of Humboldt residents, and even more so recently.

MYSIDEOFSTREETEureka philanthropist Betty Chinn is at one end of the spectrum. She is nationally recognized for her service to those in need. Chinn hands out food, clothing and toiletries without any eligibility interviews.

She knows some of the recipients are not ready to change their lives – and may never reach that point – but she doesn’t condition her help on that. Her own life experiences have taught her that it is possible to be homeless without fault, and she only wants to help. The notion than some people are undeserving of that help never crosses her mind.

The other end of the spectrum of thought about homelessness is loudly represented by Don Davenport, a Eureka real estate developer. Davenport was instrumental in preventing the renovation of the old Fireside Inn motel at 5th and R in Eureka into transitional housing for homeless military veterans. After scuttling that project, he built a furniture store on the property.

That’s a pretty good example of his philosophy – free enterprise rules and the bleep with the unfortunate. He owns other property in the neighborhood, and complains that homeless people hang around and create disgusting messes which repel customers and cost him a lot to clean up. Davenport clearly divides the poor into two categories, a very few who he deems deserving of help, and the vast majority, which he believes aren’t.

He’s not alone in that. The homeless people who are most visible and cause the most problems are what I call the hardcore homeless. They have dropped off the cliff of hope, and no long try to climb back up.

They are not welcome in many shelters, because they are dirty and belligerent. They are prey to addictions and mental health issues. Many are chain smokers and have personality disorders which prompt them to constantly seek attention.

All these are disruptive in shelters. Many of the hardcore homeless don’t even try to get in, preferring to camp out in out-of-the-way locations. Maybe preferring is the wrong word; they don’t always have the capacity to make a choice.

Davenport and others who agree with him firmly believe these poster children for homelessness make reasoned, calculated decisions to congregate in places such as Eureka, where he says they are treated too well. He complains that at a recent Eureka High School reunion, former classmates were shocked at the changes they saw in the town. I’d suggest that unless they are living in gated enclaves of gentility, there are probably hardcore homeless people where they live, too.

Chinn, who is often compared to Mother Teresa, thinks a hardcore homeless person with a sandwich is better off than one who is hungry. She works 20 hours a day to help people, with no interest in judging them. Davenport is all about judging, and he’s convinced that if Chinn and others like her didn’t coddle the homeless, they would disappear.

Therefore he is totally opposed to the day center Chinn plans to open in downtown Eureka, near 7th and C. The building was purchased by a Santa Rosa area philanthropist with ties to Humboldt County and Chinn is partnering with Catholic Charities to renovate and open the building. It will house her food operations, now spread around the city, and provide a warm, dry place for people to be during the day.

Residential quarters upstairs will provide a few beds for transitional housing, and three jobs will be created. Many potential users of the facility say they’ll volunteer to help, and a case manager will assist those who are ready to make a change. The day center is a natural progression from Chinn’s other programs, especially her major campaign to build a place where the homeless can shower and launder their clothes.

A person who works in the area told the North Coast Journal the homeless should just get jobs, saying “I hear McDonalds is hiring.” I’d bet that person would refuse to eat food handled by most of Chinn’s clients.

Homelessness, like gun violence, is a complex and seemingly insurmountable problem with multiple causes and no easy answers. It will only be improved by small steps, taken by people such as Chinn, who rolls up her sleeves and makes sandwiches. Being homeless is hell; being homeless with clean clothes and a meal is slightly less hellish.

To read an extensive cover story on Chinn’s newest project, visit www.northcoastjournal.com/news/2013/01/03/waiting-chinn/

(Elizabeth Alves sees no evidence that treating the homeless harshly is an effective means of dislodging them from the community. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press, or to mysidestreet@gmail.com.)