Beggars <i> Are</i> Choosers, Poster Says : Homeless: But critics disagree, saying Hollywood’s anti-panhandling campaign mocks the plight of the needy.
Begging for spare change in the heart of Hollywood’s tourist strip, Courtney was either eking out a living or putting on a good show, depending on one’s point of view.
The high school dropout, seated on the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard near Highland Avenue, scoffed when told of a new anti-panhandling campaign’s poster that depicted those asking for handouts as “successful actors” feeding drug and alcohol habits.
“I’m not trying to act like a beggar,” insisted Courtney, 19, who asked that her last name not be used. “I’m just trying to get money for food. It’s hard.”
Since its unveiling two weeks ago, the anti-panhandling campaign designed by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has drawn fire not just from panhandlers but also from some of the very social service agencies that the program lists as places to which the panhandlers should be referred.
The agencies argue that the program trivializes the plight of homeless youths.
The controversy has led the chamber’s executive director, Leron Gubler, to suggest that the get-tough message might be “adjusted” in coming days, although there are no plans to withdraw the posters.
Some merchants and community activists have applauded the effort, saying the campaign was long overdue.
The first phase of the program, created by the chamber’s Public Safety Committee, consists of an 11- by 17-inch poster distributed for display at local businesses. It shows a young male holding a cup for contributions and bears the headline “Meet One of Hollywood’s Most Successful Actors!”
A legend says that “many panhandlers are not hungry but use your contributions to feed drug and alcohol habits.” Would-be givers are instructed to call the chamber for a list of social service agencies serving “the truly needy.”
The second phase of the program, which will begin at an undetermined time, will involve translating the message into foreign languages and distributing flyers to tourists in local hotels, chamber officials said. In the third phase, pocket-sized cards listing various social service agencies in the community will be distributed to customers by merchants.
Chamber officials say the program is similar to anti-panhandling efforts in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and other communities. The campaign is just the first step of an effort to combat a problem that many say has gotten out of control.
“People don’t like to come to businesses that have panhandlers hanging around,” said chamber President Julie Kleinick, adding that police have reported that many panhandlers engage in drug and alcohol abuse.
Police officials could not be reached for comment.
“You can walk down Hollywood Boulevard and get panhandled 10 or 15 times,” said Robert Nudelman, a longtime community activist. “A lot of these panhandlers are more organized and doing better economically than people think.”
Although agreeing that aggressive panhandling needs to be controlled, social service providers say the chamber program mocks the homeless and misleads people into thinking that most panhandlers are teen-agers with criminal records.
“The whole thing lacks sensitivity,” said Fred Ali, executive director of Covenant House California, an agency serving homeless youths. “The person depicted on the poster is obviously a kid, and essentially this person is being depicted as a fraud, somebody who’s presumably acting the part of being hungry.”
"(The campaign) is very negative and plays on people’s worst fears, as opposed to doing anything effective,” said Mary Rainwater, executive director of L.A. Free Clinic, another agency serving young people. “By calling kids ‘successful actors,’ the poster trivializes the problems they have, which is the reason they’re out on the street in the first place.”
Chamber officials say they understand such concerns, but they have no immediate plans to change the poster.
“We want to work with all social agencies, and if people think (the campaign) is too harsh, we can certainly adjust it,” Gubler said.
Yet some say the very nature of Hollywood will make it difficult to keep teen-agers from begging on the streets.
“Let’s understand where (the panhandling problem) comes from,” said Joan Thirkettle, executive director of The Way In, a youth shelter operated by the Salvation Army. “Hollywood is a mecca of hope to these kids, even though we all know it really isn’t. But that’s what brings them here.”