Billboards are not the solution

(Title courtesy of a Robert Z. Nemeth column of 31 July 2005, “Balance prosperity with compassion”)

I know some of you disagree with me about panhandling.

That’s okay.

Disagreement is healthy.  Informed debate is what allows us to (hopefully) come to compromises and workable solutions.

In Worcester, we don’t have much informed debate.  We usually hover between decrees from above and mobs with pitchforks.

I don’t think there’s anyone in Worcester who’s pro-poverty.

I don’t think there’s even anyone who’s pro-panhandling.

I don’t know anyone who wants to see people begging on the side of the road.  I don’t know anyone who feels comfortable at that sight.

I think this is something we all have in common.

But panhandling is not the problem.

We’re talking about panhandling because it is visible, in the same way that street-level prostitution is visible.

Visible issues like panhandling and prostitution are a symptom of larger societal problems.

We lack a will and an imagination to tackle the larger problems (drug abuse, poverty, and mental illness, among others), and instead focus our brief attention spans on what we see when we get off 290.

We’re not working on — or even talking about — the larger problems, so the visible issues will keep appearing.

How many times a year do we have a push for prostitution stings in Main South?  Has that ever stopped prostitutes or johns from coming back?

How much effort was expended seven years ago on a panhandling education campaign?  It was so ineffective that it doesn’t seem to have stuck in the mind of any councilors.

I don’t think any councilors remember that in 2007 there was a three-year plan to end homelessness.

The plan had a lot of objectives, but it’s unclear whether any of them have been accomplished (except for closing the PIP and establishing a triage center).

Objective 2.2 was “Increase Educational Efforts to Develop an Early Warning System to Target those At risk of Homelessness.”  What is more of an early warning than someone begging on a streetcorner?

Objective 4.1 was to have a 0.5 FTE position to coordinate programs for the homeless  That definitely didn’t happen.  Ditto Objective 4.2, which was to have a commission on homelessness (with 0.5 FTE, paid, from the city side, to support that).

Jordan Levy was supposed to hit up the colleges for developing housing for the homeless (Objective 5.2) and have businesses provide job opportunities (Objective 3.3.1).

There’s a lot of good stuff in here.  It’s probably not a perfect plan, but it did require people doing something besides just asking for a report from the city manager when someone on the street asks them for money.

It does not matter what “side” you are on.

We can do better than this.

But it requires that we ask for real solutions and that we demand real conversations.

Brochures are not the solution for a short attention span on the part of our elected officials.

Billboards are not the solution for a lack of follow-through.

2 thoughts on “Billboards are not the solution

  1. Anthony Zamarro says:


    Thanks for your reflections. I agree with you that healthy disagreement is good, and this issue is certainly one upon which it is worth spending the time in argument. I also agree that the reason it is coming to our attention is because it is forcing itself onto our attention by interrupting our short drives from the Interstate to our homes.

    I think there is a great deal of hopelessness on this issue – folks don’t feel like the municipal resources are there to help these people. But the “end homelessness” crowd is still insisting. The thought that we can “end homelessness” is fairly misguided. We’re never going to prevent people from making shipwrecks of their lives.

    Inasmuch as we can change things, I think it will be through personal outreach, and through the actions of individuals.

  2. […] the City Council and Open Meeting Laws.The second 15 minutes, Mike complains about the City’s latest anti-panhandling plan.Published in: 508, Worcester | on July 18th, 2012 | Permanent Link to “508 #197: Open Meeting […]

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