Letters to the Editor – April 4, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

It’s the way you said it

I’m not writing to comment on Arcata’s new panhandling ordinance. Nor am I denying that the behavior of some panhandlers is outrageous and shouldn’t be tolerated.

However, I’m objecting to much of the language in your editorial which reinforces so many of the stereotypes of the homeless population. These seem especially insensitive and judgmental in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. It’s particularly disturbing that those who are not in a position of desperation continually feel they are entitled to cast judgment on those who are in those situations.

First, “beggars” seems a disrespectful and judgmental term in itself. It sounds like something out of Medieval times and is a term used in “third world” countries. In the latter case, the “beggars” are so numerous that they’re at your elbow constantly to the point where the “haves” are forced to tune them out. Here we just want them out of sight or stereotyped so we can blame them for their situation and not recognize the true implications for our society, especially when homelessness has increased in difficult economic times. Targeting the disadvantaged is such an easy thing to do, especially when the “bad apples” are in clear view (unlike many corporate CEO’s).

Second, you emphasize that “many of the traveler/beggars seem to have money enough for cigarettes, dogs…” and then criticize their budgeting decisions.

Having a pet is sometimes the sole comfort for many who are living in marginal situations. That’s why so many seniors and people with disabilities get pets. In fact, there are entire programs devoted to bringing animals to visit people in nursing homes, hospitals, and mental health facilities. Animals are therapeutic. Would you say that these are “bad budgeting decisions” too? That the homeless are entitled to some of the most basic comforts in their situation?

The same goes for “budgeting decisions” and cigarettes or booze.

Addictions, as anyone in any socioeconomic situation can attest, are extremely difficult to kick. This is especially true if you are unemployed and homeless, who are subjected to levels of stress that you can’t begin to imagine unless you’ve been in such a situation. So, you smoke or drink to dampen the pain, the way so many making judgment on the homeless do from within the comfort of their own homes and out of sight of others.

So sure. Be homeless and try to kick an addiction! And guess what are some of the services and programs being slashed these days? Any guesses?

Does that mean I want to hand over money that’s going to go for hard drugs? Of course not. I wish I could tell which panhandlers are going to buy some food with the dollar I give them from those that are going to use it for drugs, but I can’t. If half use it to buy food or even a pack of cigarettes, I have no problem with that and I’ve at least helped somebody.

Another point you might consider: a huge percentage of the homeless have a mental illness. Aside from the fact that we have woefully inadequate treatment facilities and affordable housing for these individuals, I learned (from eight years in mental health) that smoking can have some beneficial effects for these people. I am certainly not going to promote smoking, but who are we to make the judgment that cigarettes are a “bad budgeting decision” for such people?

You also use this editorial on the panhandling ordinance as still another opportunity to trash the North Coast Resource Center.

As an employee for another service agency, I feel that the NCRC does a tremendous amount of positive work in the community. Can they begin to solve all of the problems resulting from the huge homeless population in our area? Of course not. Can they control or monitor or be responsible for the behavior of all those people? Of course not. However, they are doing their best to provide the basics for those in need and to involve those individuals in doing something positive for the community and working to help them get back on their feet.

Finally, your editorial seems to play on the anger generated by the worst of the panhandlers. Many of them are way out of line, but some are not obtrusive. The person sitting on a street corner holding a sign is not. Maybe the discomfort they generate from those who are not in that position is one primary thing we want to avoid through this ordinance? Some may be hoodwinking us, but many are not. They remind that some of us could be forced into those circumstances. No… we don’t want to see that.

So, before we could give them a quarter or else turn away. But now they’re gong to be swept under the rug? Out of sight and out of mind?

Are you aware of the high percentage of people with disabilities, including mental illness, amongst the homeless population? Are you aware of how many homeless veterans there are these days? Have you been following the state budget situation and the fact that programs/services for these people have been repeatedly slashed, that local agencies that can assist them have been cut or closed their doors? Are you aware of the number of homeless who are unable to find affordable housing in this area, who have been laid off and lost housing, who can’t find work now because the unemployment rate is at 12.4% in California and higher in Humboldt County?

Yes, believe it or not, I do acknowledge that a huge number of the panhandlers in Arcata are… disreputable characters, overly aggressive, intrusive and even threatening, drug addicts, even trust fund babies who really have no need to be panhandling, etc. But please acknowledge the big picture and the fact that there are many who are not, and our society is currently woefully inadequate in providing for them. The last thing they need is to be further stigmatized, stereotyped and blamed.

Glenn Reed


Chile’s tragedy

I have had two homes in my life: one Arcata and the other Santiago, Chile. Since my first introduction to Chile as a rotary exchange student in 2004, I have lived there a total of three years as a student, a volunteer and a teacher. Chile, like California, is a country sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. Its dry desert, its Mediterranean central valley, and its temperate rain forests are a mirror image of ours. Also like California, Chile sits upon a plethora of active fault lines.

On Feb. 27, I was in the south of Chile backpacking in a national park when one of the largest earthquakes of the 20thcentury shook that country, my country. When I was awoken that night I could hear the terremoto in the trees before I noticed how the ground moved. As the quake continued I turned to my boyfriend, “I’m scared” I said, “This is too long, this is something big somewhere.” He tried to comfort me, sure that it was nothing more than some local movement, but as the ground continued to shake throughout the night, with one quake after another, we both became more concerned.

We didn’t know the full force of the quake until we were able to make it into Valdivia, a city that, appropriately, was the site of the biggest earthquake of all time: a 9.5 in 1960. Glued to the news upon arrival we watched the horrors unfold: nearly 1,000 dead, cities and towns crushed entirely, not only by the quake, but also by the many tidal waves that hit along the coast. Most of these places I knew and some were places that I loved: Isla Mocha, Curico, Las Siete Tazas. We joined the hoards of people trying to contact all their friends and loved ones, while many of the most affected areas continued to be without any sort of telephone service.

Fortunately, after days of trying, we found that all our friends and family were alright, although a friend’s restaurant had been crushed, and our nana’s apartment had collapsed. As I watched, horrified and saddened, I realized what it was like to be part of a tragedy. But not only did I feel the sadness of my country in distress, I felt for all those who have suffered in my lifetime: the victims of the Haiti quake, the Indian Ocean tsunamis, the Louisiana floods…

A few days after the quake in Chile, I saw a headline that read “ The Earth Reminds Us Of Where We Live.” It made me think about how people struggle so hard to feel in control of our earth, to tame it, to settle it, to use it to our advantage; yet ultimately what connects us most to one another is our vulnerability to forces that will forever be beyond our control.

Chile is a country of survivors. It has a culture that is defined by standing up and moving forward. People have come together already to raise 60 million dollars to start rebuilding the 1.5 million livelihoods lost in the quake. But I hope Chile’s sense of solidarity will extend beyond this isolated disaster, and beyond its own borders. I hope that whenever and wherever the next disaster occurs Chileans will feel love and support for those people, so that all those who have lost their lives and livelihoods in this catastrophe will not have lost them in vain.

Finally, I hope that all of my fellow Arcatians can feel empathy for our southern neighbors, because we too know what it is like to feel the earth move under our feet.

If you would like to donate to the relief effort in Chile, please go to untechoparachile.cl/ and click on “DONATE.”

Elana Peach-Fine