Donation boxes are a start

A plan by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce to place homeless donation boxes downtown may be somewhat misnamed, but it's an effort worth pursuing as the community tries to deal with a homelessness issue that has evolved into a homelessness problem.

The chamber will place three donation boxes downtown before Memorial Day, when Ashland's busy tourism season kicks into high gear. Money collected in the boxes will go to St. Vincent de Paul, which has a number of admirable programs to help the area's needy.

Signs on the boxes will read in part: "Give a hand up, not a handout to those in need. Support Ashland in offering real alternatives to panhandling."

Anything that will help lessen the off-putting and sometimes threatening panhandling that occurs downtown is a good thing. The groups of homeless panhandlers who have taken up virtual residence on the city's downtown sidewalks are a real threat to the tourist trade that is the lifeblood of this community. If you doubt that, watch the tourists cross the street at East Main and Pioneer to avoid walking the gantlet of panhandlers and others gathered near the Black Swan Theatre.

No one believes the donation boxes will put an end to panhandling. For one thing, describing them as homeless donation boxes is not entirely accurate. Much of St Vincent's work goes into helping people stay in their homes, by helping with such things as utility bills and buying gas so they can get to their jobs. That's important work, no doubt, but it does not put food in a panhandler's stomach or money in his or her pocket.

We all know that once money is given to panhandlers, there's no way to control how it is spent, and too much of it goes toward alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs. If you hand your dollar over to a panhandler, you may actually be making the situation worse instead of better.

But people's better natures kick in when they see someone down and out, especially people who may have just finished an expensive meal or are on their way to the theater, having spent hundreds of dollars on tickets. To their credit, they want to help.

Now there will be a way they can help and be sure their donation does not wind up being spent in the liquor store. That's a good thing.

The city and its citizens, however, must continue to seek other solutions. Providing the opportunity for temporary shelter and food is one path, enforcing panhandling laws and common decency is another. Some have suggested the box donations should be directed to a food program instead of St. Vincent's — after all, is a panhandler going to be mollified by a donation that helps someone else get their utility bill paid? Probably not.

Perhaps the donation box program can be expanded, either by adding other recipients or by St. Vincent's expanding its mission in Ashland. It's worth reassessing as the effort moves forward.

Congratulations to the chamber for making the effort. It may not be the solution, but it's a start.

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