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There But For

By Frank Gruber

Not long ago I was on my bike traveling west on Pico, waiting for the light to change at Lincoln. A beggar, one of those grizzled old timers with every drink he ever had etched into his sunburnt face, told me he was hungry.

As a rule, I don't give money to panhandlers. I've lived here too long. Why give money that will be used for drink or drugs? I give to local social service providers that try to give serious help to homeless people. Yes, those donations provide a rationalization for ignoring the outstretched palm.

If you're expecting any answers from me as to what to do about the homeless, forget it. I will hector the City Council about what to build downtown, but when it comes to giving advice on what to do about the hundreds of Santa Monicans who sleep in doorways and behind dumpsters, well, good luck, guys, and, hey, you wanted the job.

When you are riding a bike there is no window between you and the hungry vet or whoever is willing to work for food. Up close and personal with that particular panhandler that particular day, I said I would buy him a sandwich at the Subway conveniently located at the adjacent mini mall.

The beneficiary of my largesse suggested that I save myself time by giving him the money so that he could buy his own sandwich, but I waited while the Subway employee took the order. Then I paid and left as fast as I could. No, I did not give my new friend my address and offer him my guest room for a few nights while he got sober.

Thinking I would be more virtuous by keeping my goodness to myself, until now I never told anyone about my uncharacteristic act of personal charity. Even my wife found out about my grand gesture by reading a first draft of this column. (However, one of the dads on my son's little league team was passing by when I took the panhandler into the Subway. At practice later that day he told me he had witnessed what I did, which of course made me feel even more virtuous.)

Now, having read Oliver Lukacs' three-part series in The Lookout on the pitfalls of being charitable to homeless people, I wonder if I was being so good.

Did the sub I bought the old-timer on Pico further enable him to be homeless and drunk?

Was my individual "feeding program" any different from the many that evangelical churches operate in Santa Monica parks to save the souls of either or both the feeder or the fed?

Did it undercut the system of programs Santa Monica's task force on the homeless developed ten years ago after a wrenching public process?

Did I feed the panhandler's stomach or my sense of superiority?

While we're at it, when did "feeding" become the right word to describe serving a meal to a human being over the age of two?

I have sympathy for the downtown business interests who are upset about the presence of panhandlers on and around the Promenade, but I have to wonder, "What do they expect?" Panhandlers gravitate to the Promenade for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, and so long as we have a Bill of Rights, anyone more or less minding his own business can hang out at a public place.

And so long as there are tens of thousands of pockets on each block of the Promenade, the beggars will be there, too, along with their friends. As long as the beggars are here, the charitable will come with their sandwiches. As long as there are sandwiches, people who are so devoid of self that thay don't need more than a sandwich and a blanket will be content with what they've got.

If you have never read the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I recommend it. Or talk to someone who is in recovery. No one ever got sober who was content with his or her drunken or drug-addled life.

Yet I am suspicious of people who talk about the need for "tough love" who put more emphasis on the adjective than they do on the noun.

How can one not have sympathy for human beings who are so demented, so ill, so out of touch with deeply ingrained cultural norms, that they defecate in public places?

There but for a few molecules go I. Or you.

But I am just as skeptical about the left-wing political apologia for the homeless. Poor people have a hard time finding housing throughout the region, but poverty does not cause the problem people complain about in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica's problem is with people who are ill and who for one reason or another will not accept treatment. People cannot be committed for treatment unless they are a danger to themselves or others.

But what am I missing? Isn't sleeping on a sidewalk every night inherently dangerous?

Through a long process and much education on all sides, Santa Monicans reached a consensus in the early 90's on what do about these people and how to help them. That consensus involved a focus on bad behavior, and a linking of services to treatment. It was a good consensus that was both tough and loving.

If well-intentioned but uninformed outsiders are now undermining Santa Monica's program, then the City needs to take action to protect it. But let's not forget that we're dealing with human beings.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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