Homeless in downtowns
Businesses and social service agencies - which often fight over how to handle the homeless - form partnerships Different motives, same goal for owners, agencies
Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 10:41 p.m.
After seeing a homeless woman outside in the cold rain for two days, her belongings stuffed in bags stretching down the sidewalk, an employee at a nearby YMCA picked up the phone for help.
The call was to a social worker hired by Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a nonprofit group that works with businesses to promote downtown revitalization. Before long, the social worker got the 49-year-old woman food, a place to store her possessions and connected her with agencies that could treat her mental illness and find her a home.
It's just one example of the partnerships emerging between businesses and social service agencies, which often fight over how to handle the homeless.
"For many years, downtown business owners considered homeless advocates bleeding-heart liberals and homeless advocates saw businesses as lacking compassion," said Betsy Jackson, an urban development consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Once they began to realize they didn't have to agree on motives as long as they agree on the goal of getting the homeless off the streets, then they were able to find common ground to work toward solutions," Jackson said.
About 180 of the International Downtown Association's 600 members now work with social service groups, compared with just 18 five years ago, said Jackson, a former president of the Washington-based group.
Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless said he remains concerned about attempts to get the estimated 750,000 to 800,000 homeless off the streets through arrests, but is encouraged by the partnerships.
"At least people are talking about the issue and trying to find solutions," said Stoops, executive director of the Washington-based group.
A program in Burlington, Vt., a community of 40,000, has served as a model.
Merchants and residents had complained that some mentally ill and homeless people were scaring away shoppers by shouting obscenities or acting aggressively. The city now has a team of workers who put the homeless in touch with social services. "Five years ago you would have found about 90 percent of the business community saying there was a serious problem downtown. Now it's just the opposite," said Yves Bradley, co-owner of The Body Shop, a skin and hair care franchise in downtown Burlington.
In Cincinnati, downtown businesses and property owners pay a voluntary tax that raises $1.6 million annually for various services, including $50,000 for Brent Chasteen's social worker position.
Chasteen walks through the downtown and tells the homeless about sandwich shops where they can get something to eat under deals he has worked out. He is friendly but firm as he warns the homeless of a city ordinance that outlaws aggressive panhandling.
Steve Prichard, 45, has been on the streets for four years, but is now staying with friends and plans to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. "Brent has stuck with me through thick and thin," Prichard said. "I wouldn't have been able to do all this without his help."
Still, many cases do not turn out as well. Sometimes people skip the meetings Chasteen sets up with social service agencies, drop out of treatment programs or rebuff his attempts to help.
"I try not to take it personally or get discouraged," he said. "I just see myself as a motivator for those who want help but may not be able to find it on their own."
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