Corvallis Groups Fumble Panhandling Message

By Wayne Carruth

54826b96b6c3b.imageIn an apparently joint venture (I say this out of lingering disbelief) between local homeless shelters and the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, last week Corvallis residents began seeing flyers designed to persuade them away from giving spare change to panhandlers. The flyer, titled “Handouts Don’t Help,” has succeeded… in fanning the flames of an already blazing fire over the issue of homelessness in the city.

Distribution has largely been through the support of several Corvallis businesses including the Book Bin, Market of Choice, and New Morning Bakery. These businesses, as well as those behind the flyers, surely have the best of intentions. The idea is to communicate to the public that panhandlers and the homeless are not necessarily the same group. Instead, as the document suggests, one should give the spare change in question to local organizations that provide medical care, shelter, food, and more to “these folks, so they can begin to get their lives back together.”

The flyer, however, seems to paint quite another picture in general. Right up near the top, an image of a hand giving a coin to another hand is displayed with a bold, red slashed circle “NO” symbol over it. The second paragraph claims that in most cases the money given will only prolong a person’s “condition” and that in some cases it is only “a money-making scam, preying on your kind-hearted generosity.” Nowhere does the text even attempt to differentiate between panhandlers and the general homeless, despite many defending the approach on that very talking point. The quote “’Spare change’ does nothing. The way to help those truly in need, is to donate your dollars to local organizations…” towards the end is really interesting, considering the myriad reasons researchers have turned up over the years explaining why members of the homeless population might not actually use shelters. As much of a shock as this may be to those bundled up in the confines of our little college town, it doesn’t always have to do with drug use or other nefarious behavior.

Let’s get something straight, though: what this flyer has to say is not expressly incorrect. It’s actually very much on point, as the organizations it supports are able to facilitate permanent good as opposed to the band-aid of spare change. That’s where the money should go, no doubt about it. The problem with it lies in the insensitive imagery, the accidental support of harmful stereotypes, the bungled text, and the fact that it absolutely fails in every possible respect regarding its intention of informing Corvallis citizens of what I was able to make clear just now in a single sentence. Judging by the inflamed comments threads on Facebook and The Gazette-Times, many have judged this book by its hobbled cover, setting back the dialogue a long way for no good reason.

Whether the design of this document was born of stereotype or some sort of brain fart, I think both sides of the ensuing shouting match could agree that a redesign is in order.