Persistent poverty produces 'compassion fatigue' Advocates for poor fear impact on giving

December 02, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Everybody in town seems to know Jim Tobin.

Most wish they didn't.

Still, over the years, Martinsburg Mayor Tony Senecal has given the 64-year-old street bum money, cigarettes and food -- once he even bailed him out of jail.

Last Thursday, the Martinsburg City Council gave preliminary approval to an ordinance offered by Mr. Senecal that outlaws begging in this Eastern Panhandle community of 15,000.

Violators would be fined $500 or jailed for up to 10 days.

"All over the country, people are getting fed up," said Mr. Senecal, who owns a tobacco shop on a downtown street favored by Martinsburg's 18 or so panhandlers. "You have to start somewhere."

Across the nation, it seems, many people have given up on giving. In increasing numbers, they are becoming less tolerant of the needy, less giving of their time and less willing to part with their money.

The chill that has settled across the United States has alarmed advocates for the homeless, the poor and the hungry, who see it fostering a climate in which:

* The city manager of Richmond, Va., following Martinsburg's lead, proposed last week regulating beggars by requiring them to purchase a license or risk the threat of jail. Atlanta, too, is cracking down on panhandlers and street people.

* A few weeks ago, dozens of homeless who take shelter in Chicago's O'Hare Airport were evicted.

* Voters in Washington, D.C., rejected last month an ordinance that would have provided the homeless with shelter on demand.

In the same city, police have resurrected an old law and begun to arrest beggars.

* In San Francisco and neighboring Berkeley, known for their tolerance, officials have kicked hundreds of homeless people and vagrants out of parks.

In Santa Monica, Calif., where hundreds have been fed daily on the lawn of City Hall, thousands of residents in that affluent community outside Los Angeles have said they want the handouts to stop.

* Cities across the nation got the Supreme Court's implied permission to ban all poor people from begging for money in subway and bus stations after the high court declined last week to hear an appeal by two New York City homeless men that challenged the flat ban on panhandlers in New York's transit system.

San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, a former social worker, has a name for it all: compassion fatigue.

Carolyn Busenhart, a 50-year-old hairdresser in Northern California who rallied several hundred people last summer to an "anti-homeless" protest in the coastal city of Santa Cruz, said, "You drive downtown, and all you see is bums. I'm sick of it.

"Through this compassion of ours we've enabled people to remain homeless. They take the food, they take the shelter, and nothing changes. Why should those of us who work work for those who don't?

"Compassion?" Ms. Busenhart said. "Don't talk to me about compassion."

It is not that the United States has suddenly gone cold. In Berkeley, for instance, city officials will soon consider a plan to create "urban campsites" on vacant lots so that the homeless can get off the streets and sleep in tents.

Here in Martinsburg, the Rescue Mission -- run for 30 years by a Baptist minister who once was a street bum himself -- provides overnight shelter to 40 homeless men and serves 150 meals a day.

"I realize that by the grace of God I'm not out on the street or in a drunkard's grave somewhere," said the Rev. William Crowe. "I just want these fellows to know someone cares about them."

And Americans continue to be extremely generous: In 1989, individuals, foundations and corporations gave nearly $115 billion to charity, a 10 percent increase over 1988.

However, worries over the weakening economy, the threat of war in the Persian Gulf, a general loss of faith in U.S. government, and the sheer magnitude of the nation's social ills have led folks like Tamera McBride, a secretary in a Martinsburg real estate firm, to conclude:

"You do so much, and none of it seems to help. At some point you burn out, and then you turn off."

In particular, the plight of the homeless -- something of a cause celebre the past few years -- is losing support even as the problem worsens, advocates say.

In the course of a year, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million Americans wander in and out of homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Of those, a third have jobs, and a third are families.

It has been estimated that nearly a quarter of the homeless are children.

"People are tired of not seeing any progress, not just about the homeless but about everything," said Thomas L. Kenyon, president of the alliance.

"They give money to the Salvation Army, they work in a soup kitchen, they make fruit baskets at Christmas -- and then they walk out of the subway and have 50 [beggars'] cups thrown in their face," he said.

In Jefferson City, Mo., last week, the Rev. Larry Rice, who runs programs for the homeless, found this message taped to his door:

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