Downtown Alliance Alters Message

John Caputo

NEOCH Intern

The Downtown Alliance’s (DCA campaign to direct handouts to where they can be most useful is receiving a major facelift in its first full summer.  The campaign began almost a year ago in August 2007 in an attempt to drive non-homeless, overly aggressive panhandlers from the streets and redirect funds normally given to panhandlers to organizations and shelters that provide services for the homeless.  The DCA, a non-profit organization that is committed to economic growth n downtown Cleveland and, according to its website, is “dedicated to building a dynamic downtown, started the campaign with the belief that many people want to help, but that their funds should be going to those non-homeless panhandlers.  A large number of people pose as homeless people in order to receive the gifts of passerby.  It is these people whom the DCA is trying to oust.  They can be overly aggressive, is representing homeless people, feeding stereotypes and turning donors off to giving in the future.  Once all panhandlers, homeless and non-homeless, realize that they can make no money from their occupation, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance feel those that need help will seek out public services while those who don’t will simply leave the streets.

The idea sounds great.  People will give to the Downtown Homeless Fund, the fund where the Downtown Cleveland Alliance places all money raised from its campaign.  The Fund will give to organizations that help the homeless.  Shelters and kitchens will receive a boost in revenues.  They will be able to expand their services to feed the homeless and give them a roof to sleep under.  Perfect.  Great.  Problem solved. Not really.

Mark Lammon of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance says panhandling has decreased 40% since the campaign’s inception last august.  However, the fund has raised only $3,000 in that time.  That’s a clip of about $10 dollars a day, an amount that one panhandler could make fairly easily in one hour.  This program is supposed to help provide services for all homeless people in the entire city, not just enough for one.  So what’s the issue? How come the money is not coming in?  Are homeless people receiving the services promised by the campaign?

One obstacle t donation is the fact that right now it is difficult to donate.  The only option a donor has is to send a check or cash in the mail to the Downtown Homeless Fund (the address is c/o Downtown Cleveland Alliance, 50 Public Square, Suite 285, Cleveland, Ohio 44113 in case you feel inclined to donate now.)  A commuter who works in the city may see a homeless person on Public Square on his or her lunch hour and think to himself or herself, “I should send some money to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.”  But b y the time most prospective donors get home, often miles away from the city, they have forgotten about going to the extra trouble to donate to a homeless program.  Donors need a constant reminder of the pain and difficulty of homelessness, to realize that the problem continues to exist past the time that it is right in front of their faces.

The issue of indirect donation also turns some donors off.  Many feel that the “Don Give Where it Can’t Help” campaign is just another sight of homelessness out of the public’s eyes.  They strongly oppose the absolute ignoring of homeless people who ask for help as a direct affront to the homeless person’s humanity.  This base of people has great potential giving power, but they feel their gifts are better utilized in efforts that directly affect homeless people, not those that they feel encourage ignoring them.

To further the revenues and thereby the positive effect the campaign can have on homeless people, it will be undergoing drastic changes and improvements in the coming weeks.  The name will be changed from negative “Don’t Give Where it Can’t Help” to something along the lines of “Give Where it Counts” or Give Where it is Needed.”  The campaign will have a different, more positive feel along with new graphics that the DCCA hopes will attract those who think that the DCA is giving people permission to ignore the homeless.

Several more convenient donations venues will spring up by the end of the summer to encourage people to donate.  Instead of the extra effort needed to mail in a check, donors can simply drop their give in one of twelve donation boxes that will be installed in key pedestrian traffic areas such as Tower City and West 6th Street.  The first of these will be installed around the end of the summer with no certain timetable for when all twelve will be in place.  A website, fully equipped with Pay Pal, where donors can give online with a credit or debit card is also in the works and should be operational by the end of the summer.  Lammon expects that the Downtown Homeless Fund’s dollars will double in the next year as a result of these new measurers.

Currently, with the small amount of money in their pot, the only services that DCA has been able to provide are assistance with getting identification such as Social Security Cards or birth certificates and buying bus passes.  These are necessary services but they hardly provide the large-scale relief that the program seems to promise.  Lammon hopes that with the expected increased revenues the program will be able to expand and fund more programs that directly homeless.

The greatest danger of indirect donations is that people will not know where to go to receive or how to use the services that the Downtown Cleveland Alliance is funding.  The programs may exist but if the people who need them do not know how to access them, then they are useless.  The Downtown Cleveland Alliance should publish a list of services that it is funding so that the people they are trying to help will know where they can go to receive that help.  RTA has recently donated a bus to the DCA that will be used to make services more accessible by providing a means of transportation to those reluctant to otherwise take advantage of them.

The only way the new measures in this campaign will be successful is if DCA makes it known that it is not giving people permission to ignore homelessness.  The campaign is titled “Don’t Give Where it Can’t Help” but many people perceive it to mean “Don’t Give At Al.”  This is the key reason why the campaign’s name is changing.  With the change of the campaign’s name, along with all the other additions, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance hopes to encourage people to give more freely and often.  Only with a clearly stated, demonstrative, and aggressive campaign will people be aware of the existence of homelessness and the necessary steps to eradicate it.  “Don’t Give Where it Can’t Help is not trying to keep homelessness out of sight.  It is trying to show the city that through a conscious common effort we can help those who need it.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #85 in July-August 2008 Cleveland Ohio.