Our Town To give or not to give? by Douglas Feiden
That is the question as the winter nears. Is it nobler to give money to the homeless? Or to help in other ways? A tweet from a neighborhood group last week thrust the debate into the open
A homeless woman -- or in street parlance, a “shopping-bag lady” -- with her worldly belongings on Second Avenue just south of East 75th Street last weekend. Photo: Douglas Feiden
State Senator Liz Krueger (first row, center, speaking) and City Council Member Ben Kallos (standing behind her, second row center) at a press conference in March announcing new supportive housing for families on East 91st Street between First and Second Avenues. The two East Side elected officials hold different views about whether residents should give money to homeless panhandlers or offer help in other ways or both. Photo: Courtesy of Senator Liz Krueger’s office
They don’t get any money. But they don’t leave the Episcopal church at York Avenue and 74th Street empty-handed either. “We never give out cash,” the rector will explain. But then she adds, “I will always buy you a meal.”
Succor comes in many different forms: “If someone’s hungry, you just feed them,” Reddall says. So she’ll take them to a deli across the street for a sandwich, or to the Rainbow store on First Avenue for toiletries and underwear, and to “make them feel like human beings again.”
There is no one response to that perennial New York question: When a panhandler solicits you for cash, do you give, or do you figure out another means to help?
Belied by an Indian summer, the approach of winter will soon refocus attention on the plight of the homeless. Their ranks and visibility have mushroomed in recent years, and they’ve become, in effect, a part of our streetscape.
The daily shelter census as of October 18 stood at 60,305 people, including 23,123 children, according to data from the city’s Department of Homeless Services. When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, pledging to combat the problem, the official city count was 50,689.
That’s a steep 18 percent increase in the shelter population, and it has haunted his reelection campaign. Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican mayoral hopeful, cites it as proof of “administrative incompetence.” But absent de Blasio’s programs to find homes for the homeless and the at-risk, City Hall counters, the census would be nearing 70,000.
Meanwhile, the annual February tally of people living on sidewalks or doorsteps and in subways and parks shot up to 3,880, an increase of 40 percent from 2016, partially because a mild winter made it easier to camp outdoors. Another factor: A large inventory of empty storefronts, resulting from small business closings, provides new sleeping berths.
All of this is playing out on the Upper East Side, where social-service groups and community-based nonprofits, churches and synagogues, block associations and community boards, and civic, faith and elected leaders — not to mention a perplexed citizenry — are grappling with the homeless issue. And mulling a basic question: To give or not to give?
Those ruminations, like so much else today, burst into public view with a tweet.
The scene was the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, at 337 East 74th Street, on the evening of October 16th, where the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association was holding a public meeting, and City Council Member Ben Kallos was discussing the homeless problem.
That night, says Tina Larsson, the group’s secretary-treasurer, she tweeted a message that emerged from his presentation, and shortly after, Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and Midtown East, retweeted it.
“Don’t give money to the homeless in our neighborhood,” she wrote. “Donate to the faith-based institutions that help them instead.”
The sharp surge in the homeless presence locally has been disturbing to residents, Larsson says. She notes a small square at 75th Street on the west side of First Avenue near the Saratoga apartment building as one problem spot.
And she cited a local nuisance known as the “Spitting Lady of 77th Street,” a longtime fixture on Third Avenue who cursed, screamed and spat upon people, often children. The woman became the focus of a Facebook page, and an online petition to de Blasio demanding her removal that garnered 1,500 signatures. She hasn’t been spotted since May.
Handouts to people like that encourage their behavior, increase the volume of solicitations and fuel dependency, the argument goes. “If you keep giving them money, they’ll keep staying here,” Larsson said.
Kallos say his constituents are deeply compassionate. “And when they see someone on the street, many people give from the bottom of their hearts,” he says. “The problem is for everyone else in the neighborhood who don’t want to see panhandlers, those who give are literally paying them to be there.”
He regularly addresses groups of as many as 100 residents in their buildings, asking for a show of hands of those who give cash to street beggars. Typically, some 10 percent of attendees raise their hands, and Kallos will implore, “Please stop doing that. You are paying them to stay there.”
Offering money can also discourage the needy from accepting tax-supported city services that could get them off the streets, he argues.
The alternative? “If you want to help someone on the street, call 311,” Kallos urges, saying a call can open the door to city shelter, three square meals a day, substance abuse programs, job training, even money to help pay the rent.
Of course, these are deeply personal decisions. Emotionally wrenching, too. And they can make you turn to your faith for guidance.
In fact, it was on Yom Kippur three years ago, during a period of fasting and reflection, that Kallos, who prays at Congregation Or Zarua on 82nd Street, discussed with Rabbi Scott Bolton ideas for ameliorating the growing homeless problem.
Out of that brainstorming came ETHOS, the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services, which was launched in February 2016. The group — made up of elected officials, churches, synagogues and nonprofits — provides support for meals, food pantries, street outreach, substance abuse, and legal, medical, housing and shelter services.
State Senator Liz Krueger, the founding director of the Food Bank for New York City, was one of the officials who helped launch ETHOS. But her take differs from Kallos’ on the wisdom of handing over cash. She actually does so frequently near her home in the East 70s.
“There are true people in need living on the streets or in search of basic needs like shelter and food,” says Krueger, who represents the Upper East Side and Midtown East. “If you’re approached by a woman with a child who says, ‘I really need food and medicine for my child,’ well, that person needs help right now.”
There is no one right answer, she says. “But there is a wrong answer, and that is simply to turn away and say, ‘This isn’t my problem.’”
The bottom line: “Sometimes, I say, ‘No,’ if someone is asking very aggressively, sometimes I hand over money, and sometimes I go and buy them food ... But nobody who is hanging out on street corners begging for money doesn’t actually need it because it’s not much of a life.”
At issue is simply the best way to help: “Outreach workers say they want to get people off the streets so they can begin to be reached by city services,” says Ann Shalof, executive director of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, which runs a residence on East 81st Street that provides counseling, substance abuse treatment and job support.
“By giving money to people on the street, you’re facilitating their staying on the streets,” Shalof adds.
Of course, there are as many opinions as there are New Yorkers. “The last thing I want to do is encourage dependency,” said waitress and East Side resident Sandra Snyder, explaining why she walked away from a beggar near the corner of Second Avenue and 79th Street last week.
Her boyfriend had a different take. Mike Hayes, a bartender, ponied up one dollar, put it in the cup of a man who said he was a Vietnam veteran, got a gentle, “God bless you” in return, and a warm smile to boot. “It breaks your heart,” he said. “It’s just too hard to walk away.”
Now, it’s your turn. Tell us how you deal with requests for cash from the homeless in your neighborhood. Do you give money? Or food? Donate to support groups? Call 311? Walk away to discourage dependency? Write Douglas Feiden, at invreporterstrausnews [dot] com, and we’ll print some of your letters.