Downtown meters tacky, dehumanizing

Thoughts on the charity drive that doubles as an anti-panhandling campaign

The author is a Chico native and father of two boys.

Downtown Chico’s new fire-engine-red meters have signs that ask passersby for money, and ask us to refrain from giving money to panhandlers. The signs declare that the city will distribute the money to unnamed organizations that serve the homeless. These meters make me uncomfortable.

I’ve owned a downtown café and have removed people who wanted to linger without paying. Some may have been homeless, others were college students, some were pot-trimmers. We certainly have vagrancy in Chico, but these issues have been exaggerated by the people who want to use enforcement to scatter people out of town (or just around town).

When your meme becomes, “Make Chico clean and safe,” it implies Chico is currently dirty and dangerous, a point of view enthusiastically embraced by a local police union that would like us to believe we’re never quite safe enough. Chico is a different place than it was in 1985, but interesting places grow, and since then America’s middle class has been eviscerated and the economy has been engineered to make it harder than ever to escape poverty.

My initial discomfort with the meters was spiritual. They explicitly ask us to ignore those who ask us for help. Alms-giving is commanded by nearly every wisdom tradition. Giving is good for the giver. We learned that in kindergarten. To feed the meter, we have to agree with the premise that the homeless should go somewhere else and leave us alone. We have to believe that’s even possible. The rest of my discomfort is logistical: How does the city collect the funds? Is there a separate change collector? How much money is collected? Is it wise to trust tax collectors with alms?

The meters are tacky and dehumanizing half-measures.

To ever make a dent in homelessness, we first need to make unconditional shelter available where social services have a chance to make an impact. If I was sleeping under a bridge I’d have a big dog and a drinking problem, too. Until we have the political will to pick up our hammers and build tiny houses with the homeless, I’ll be handing out quarters to people, not meters.