SPARE CHANGE: I don’t know that I qualify as a miracle of modern science, but I’m sufficiently improbable — statistically speaking — that someone could get a grant to study me. That’s because since moving to Santa Barbara on April Fool’s Day many light years ago, I have yet to be aggressively panhandled. Not even once. Sure, I’ve been hit up for spare change, but invariably to the dulcet tones of “God Bless You,” or “Have a Nice Day.” I remain mystified by my apparent immunity in the face of so obvious an epidemic. I’m not big. I’m hardly forbidding. I do, however, wear a fanny pack. It’s an essential part of my wardrobe as a dorky, middle-aged, white-male, urban bicycle commuter. I don’t pretend to know how this wards off the aggro and obnoxious, just that it does. The good news, at least according to TIME magazine, is that the fanny pack is poised on the precipice of making a big fashion comeback. Only this time, they’ll call it the “Lumbar Pack” or “Messenger Bag.”
While I may be both color-blind and tone-deaf where aggressive panhandling is concerned, not everyone is so happily afflicted. Based on the gnashing of teeth and rending of flesh the issue elicits, I can only deduce that Santa Barbara is currently engulfed by a tsunami of overly assertive requests for unearned income by wayfaring individuals disinclined —
despite theatrical assertions to the contrary — to work for food or anything else. According to the hotel owners, people from all over the country are lining up by the thousands not to come to Santa Barbara. According to business associations, these same people — once they don’t get here — are making a beeline away from State Street because they don’t wish to be accosted by street bums with a hyperactive sense of personal entitlement.
While the rest of the planet is fixated by historic shifts now occurring in the Middle East, Santa Barbara’s political debate remains stubbornly stuck on panhandling and the homeless. These two qualified as the 800-pound gorilla and elephant under the rug during this week’s City Council debate over a $2-million face-lift proposed for the landscaping outside the downtown Public Library. Two weeks ago, complaints of aggressive panhandling animated the knock-down–drag-out over a much needed shelter proposed for the mentally ill transitioning from the streets. The week before, the hue and cry was over emergency warming centers during foul weather. But for all the interminable talk, things have a habit of not getting done. And even when they do, they accomplish nothing. In November 2009, for example, the City Council passed a measure that attempted to simultaneously address the yin and yang of the problem. On one hand, the council approved a new get-tough-on-aggressive-panhandling ordinance; on the other, it set aside $75,000 for a new alternative giving campaign — Real Change, Not Spare Change. This would enable all the bleeding hearts and soft touches to help underwrite the cost of street outreach workers hired to connect the homeless with actual services rather than a bottle of fortified wine. To date, not one person has been cited for aggressive panhandling, and given the law was written in deference to the U.S. Constitution, probably no one ever will. In that same time, only 23 businesses have seen fit to put Real Change, Not Spare Change boxes on their counters. As a result, that program has raised only a paltry $3,600 so far. I don’t know for certain how many fanny packs $75,000 will buy, but I’m guessing half that amount would keep an enterprising outreach worker busy.
However elusive solutions have proven to be, it’s clear that more and more people are now on the streets. In response, we’re increasingly hearing how we’re doing too much. If we weren’t so generous, we are told, we wouldn’t have so many homeless. Build it, in other words, and they’ll come from all over. I don’t know if that argument is true or not, but it’s been around for a very long time. Way back in the 1950s, an industrialist in the area who got rich manufacturing Foam-X foot powder — Alexander Hyde — proposed installing real bathrooms and real shower stalls down at the ramshackle hobo village that had been located at the site of the present day zoo since the 1930s. Hyde was part of a veiled Christian-capitalist conspiracy to help the poor. He had notions that the Hobo Jungle was a positive prototype that, with some tweaking, could be exported successfully to other communities. To this end, he enlisted help from a city cop named Noah “Stormy” Cloud, who worked with juvenile delinquents associated with such gangs as “The Cavaliers” and their girl-gang auxiliary, “The Cavalettes.” Cloud and his young charges would do the grunt work under the supervision of professional contractors. When Cloud sought blessing from the City Council for this endeavor, many expressed fears the proposed improvements would draw more hobos and more poor people to Santa Barbara. Cloud wasn’t buying it. “These are our poor people,” he told them. “These are our residents.” Cloud won that argument, and the new facilities got built. But they didn’t last long. The hobos got old, and the zoo moved in. For his efforts, Cloud was hailed as “Man of the Year” by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Shortly after, he left town to work with wayward youth in Orange County. In 1962, Hyde and his wife were killed, struck by a speeding car as they crossed the street.
The moral of this story is decidedly not that a problem doesn’t exist. It’s that Santa Barbarans, to an unusual degree, have traditionally responded with kindness to people without roofs over their heads, however much grumbling and complaining they may do. People want to help, whether they’re fat-cat industrialists like Alexander Hyde or pedestrians getting hit up for spare change. This attitude, I’m sure, draws some people to Santa Barbara who would not otherwise come. Some of these, admittedly, are righteous pains in the ass. In this equation, I’d be more alarmed by a town without any panhandlers than one with too many. We all have to pick our poisons. In the meantime, if you want to be left alone, wear a fanny pack