The poor finding it harder to be thankful

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News reports started early this week showing celebrities and sports figures at food pantries and at food kitchens handing out meals to the needy.

Attention turns to the homeless and working poor every holiday season as though one should really be thankful for not being in that predicament. Having been spared, people are filled with the spirit of charity, feeling as though they  should reach out and lend a helping hand.

This personal introspection is good for the soul, but below the surface of the holiday benevolence is a battle waged by those committed to feeding the poor year-round versus those who would rather see the poor just disappear.

Cut off the food supply, make the homeless go away!

The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition is facing such pressure. Two members of the L.A. city council are seeking to have the volunteer food kitchen stop using the city’s public spaces to feed the hungry. “We go where the homeless are,” says Tom Landreth, Co-Founder and Volunteer Secretary of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. “To many of the people we serve, this will be their only meal of the day.”

The coalition has been feeding the poor in public spaces in downtown Los Angeles for 26 years. It now finds itself in the center of a national debate as to where the homeless should be serviced and what communities should bear the burden.

Opponents of the food coalition feel using public spaces draw poor people with mental and physical conditions that cannot be supported. They argue that their neighborhoods have become collateral damage as homeless people squat on their properties, leave trash, walk the streets with mental illnesses and engage in petty criminal disruptions.

More than 30 cities including Philadelphia, Raleigh, Seattle and Orlando have passed laws strictly limiting where food organizations feeding the poor can operate.  In the case of Los Angeles, the move is an attempt to require that homeless people be fed at designated indoor facilities.

“The notion that you can rid of homelessness by hiding it is absurd!” Landreth told theGrio. “First of all, L.A. should be embarrassed. Most of the people we serve are actually residents of this city who for no reasons of their own, have fallen upon hard times. It is an attempt by developers and real estate speculators to drive the homeless out of downtown areas. For them to think that their homeless problems can be resolved by driving off their food resources is cynical, callous and ineffective.”

Noting that homeless encampments can be found not only in West Hollywood, but also in areas of Brentwood and Venice beaches, he says, “The problems are deepening as the congress moves to reduce food stamps and medical subsidies that are  barely keeping the working poor and homeless functional.”

The sight of homeless “unsettling”

“As caring humans, we should motivate and demand that in a country with so much wealth, that we help people who do not have enough to eat,” says Jerry Jones, Executive Director of the National Coalition of the Homeless. Jones told theGrio, “People are unsettled by the appearance of mass food distribution. It makes them feel uncomfortable.” And Jones made a point that goes to the core of the problem. “For the most part, residents in affected areas look at these homeless folks and say — I feel for them, but please make them go away.” He said that although feeding the hungry on streets and in parks is a way to help service the needy, “We do not feel that standing on sidewalks to get dinner is acceptable either.”

Sometimes roadblocks to the homeless support effort come through the use of existing laws on the books. Landreth, with the greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, told theGrio that at one time, the coalition would set up tables and chairs for the homeless to eat at the local parks where they serve meals. But the city council moved to enforce an ordinance mandating a permit for such set-ups. Permits would have cost the coalition $500 per night.

“We are volunteers,” says Landreth, “and as such all of our fundraising efforts go toward meals. This is another effort to try to make us move indoors where we would have to spend money on rental space, further eroding the funds to service the poor.”

The move not only affected food services to the homeless, but medical services too. Landreth told theGrio, “The UCLA Medical Coalition, which offers free medical services to the poor, cannot set up cots and chairs, too. Patients are forced to get medical attention while sitting on the sidewalks.”

Both Landreth and Jones feel adding costs to the ability to service the hungry further diminishes the overall reach of service organizations. In a New York Times op-ed, philanthropist and musician Peter Buffett takes to task what he called “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” 

The son of Warren Buffett pointed out how lawmakers, industrialists and think tanks have made an industry out of how to help the poor with institutes and businesses  analyzing the “return on investment,” or ROI, when it comes to helping the needy. Systems are being created to determine the ROI on alleviating human suffering before projects are green-lighted.  The recurring theme you hear when you talk to people who volunteer out of the sheer joy of service is how they have smiles on their faces knowing that their services come from the heart.

As Ted Landreth put it, “What we do is the people’s work. We come from all walks of life, giving freely to people from all walks of life.”

Perhaps this should be the model for positive charity.

Follow Will Wright on Twitter @willjwright