The Debate over Ethics and Charity: Making it Rain on Skid Row Holiday Edition


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Why not both?Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    Reminds me of the scene in Gladiator where bread is being thrown to the poor Roman masses. This guy just ain’t an emperor.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Damon says:

      The motif recurs constantly in history. British aristocrats used to throw coins from their carriages as they rode through the slums.

      But since we’re talking about dehumanizing displays, we have to ask “who benefits”? The guy who owns the liquor store across the street is one obvious immediate beneficiary, as are the local drug pushers. Negative comments like that are part-and-parcel to the perpetual debate about whether charitable efforts aimed at homeless people with addiction problems further enables the addictions, and whether the high the giver gets from “helping” is part of the dysfunctional situation.

      This question doesn’t go away when such impulses are turned into government programs, either. San Francisco spent more than any other city on helping the homeless, and now it has more homeless than any other city. Cynics have always noted that if you keep feeding the rats, you get more rats. Literature usually treats those cynics as cold-hearted villains, but they might have a point that we keep forgetting; that making it easier or more critical to get off the streets might be better for everybody than making it easier to stay on the streets.

      The social dynamics have gone on so long (serfs, peasants, monasteries, alms giving, Victorian slums, hobos, soup kitchens, and bread lines) that at this point everybody can just play a character from a previous run of the long running literary franchise. “Young rich noble goes into the slums to flaunt his wealth so he’s the center of attention at his hip society party that evening.” Some cynical people are inclined to think that if the poor didn’t exist, bleeding-heart philanthropists and social progressives would have to create them. Really cynical people think that’s exactly what happened.

      If such cynicism gives way to paranoia, one has to wonder about someone who collects Stasi levels of inside intelligence on everybody, who slips in and out of people’s houses, and who thinks it’s laudable to reward some and punish others based on whether the intelligence rates them as naughty or nice. Indeed, perhaps a Claymore on the roof or a bear trap in the chimney would put an end to all this madness.

      And with that, Merry Christmas!Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

        “…that making it easier or more critical to get off the streets might be better for everybody than making it easier to stay on the streets.”

        Agreed, sincerely.

        For example, Salt Lake City has a fine housing program which has been very successful in removing people from the streets.

        We also know that the most severe cases of homelessness, the street people everyone is familiar with, is caused generally by substance abuse and mental illness.

        Which is a problem caused not by society, not by “feeding the rats” but by causes no one has ever been able to pinpoint.

        But these are problems endemic to all societies; If homelessness is concentrated in cities, are we supposed to imagine that only city people get drunk or become schizophrenic? No, people with those problems move to cities to take advantage of being near other people.

        So in the end, homelessness can only be treated by massive amounts of concentrated aid. Which answers the question of why it isn’t being done- because it is expansive and doesn’t have any immediate gratification.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          It is being done. Seattle, LA, and San Francisco spend a fortune on aid. The more they spend, the more homelessness they get.

          Last year there was a great article in City Journal about it. It starts with these three paragraphs and gets better from there:

          Seattle is under siege. Over the past five years, the Emerald City has seen an explosion of homelessness, crime, and addiction. In its 2017 point-in-time count of the homeless, King County social-services agency All Home found 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars, and emergency shelters. Property crime has risen to a rate two and a half times higher than Los Angeles’s and four times higher than New York City’s. Cleanup crews pick up tens of thousands of dirty needles from city streets and parks every year.

          At the same time, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman, and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened, with more addiction, more crime, and more tent encampments in residential neighborhoods. By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working.

          Over the past year, I’ve spent time at city council meetings, political rallies, homeless encampments, and rehabilitation facilities, trying to understand how the government can spend so much money with so little effect. While most of the debate has focused on tactical policy questions (Build more shelters? Open supervised injection sites?), the real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges, or in the corridors of City Hall but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. Together, they have dominated the local policy discussion, diverted hundreds of millions of dollars toward favored projects, and converted many well-intentioned voters to the politics of unlimited compassion. If we want to break through the failed status quo on homelessness in places like Seattle—and in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, too—we must first map the ideological battlefield, identify the flaws in our current policies, and rethink our assumptions.

          I highly recommend it.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    How many times have you heard “man, millionaires/billionaires don’t know how to have fun… they should go out and just give money to poor people!” (or a variant thereof)?

    I mean, for me, when I went to my little college diner, throwing a $10 into the tip jar was no trouble for me but, for them, it made their whole day. (Around Christmastime, I threw a $20 in there and they couldn’t freakin BELIEVE it.)

    Heck, I’d tell anybody who goes someplace regularly to make a huge overtip around the holidays and let the people who serve you all the time know that you appreciate them because an extra $10 to you is just an extra $10 to you, but, to them, it’s a gift that they are surprised by.

    Anyway, in that same way, this guy is giving a small amount (to him) to people who really, really, really appreciate it.

    And falling back to some moral stance about how The Widow’s Mites meant more to God than the bags of gold given by the pharisees… well, sure, and good for The Widow but those bags of gold filled more bellies in more children than the mites did.

    All that to say: sure, it’s kinda selfish on his part… but those people also will benefit from the money and the fact that he receives a benefit from helping others SHOULD NOT BE HELD AGAINST HIM.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

      Man, we *have* read all the same books. I appreciate your formulation above. This is the virtue of magnanimity. Its a secondary, but required virtue. Which is to say, we wouldn’t accord someone as virtuous who wasn’t also magnanimous.

      So, whether or not Mr. Blueface is or isn’t virtuous, I couldn’t entirely say… but I can say that for a wealthy person, it is only by being magnanimous that I could begin to wonder whether he might be virtuous at all. At which point all the other contentions around his actions would bear. But, being imperfectly magnanimous is itself a virtuous act greater than the parsimonious vices we’ve attributed to great wealth and mistakenly called them virtues.

      It is ok in a much lesser sense to *also* look towards “large government projects” but in practice, what we really see is an absence of magnanimity, the stripping of virtuous duty that comes with great gifts, in favor of a minimally negotiated tax. I question, in this sense, the virtue of people like Gates and Buffet… their giving is vast, but not magnanimous. I’ll concede imperfect knowledge of their true virtuous magnanimity… but will stand by the general principle that their vast empire of “giving” is control by other means. So too most engineers of “Large Government Projects.”

      Mr. Blueface needs to practice this magnanimity for his own sake… a well ordered society would call out those who have these gifts to greater acts of magnanimity before we recognize them with any honor or virtue. Negotiating minimal “Large Government Projects” in lieu of magnanimity is the very definition of institutionalized vice pretending to be virtue.

      Be magnanimous. Merry Christmas.Report

  4. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Much of what is done in the name of charity is dehumanizing.

    Ain’t no way ’round that.Report

  5. Avatar InMD says:

    Ostentatious giving I think is better than no giving at all, but the Catholic upbringing in me still insists that the Matthew 6:3 kind is rightly considered best.Report

  6. Avatar Lee Ratner says:

    Jewish teaches on charity typically teaches that giving should be anonymous or done without much of a fuss so that the recipient doesn’t feel embarrassed but like InMD points out, ostentatious giving is better than none. I’m generally of the type that believes that solving problems on wide scale requires tax funded government social spending but believes that private charity is important because it allows prosperous people to feel involved. Having people help by merely contributing tax money is dehumanizing. Volunteering is better though because it as an active rather than passive thing. Its also a group activity so that prevents any look at me vanity.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Lee Ratner says:

      I’m generally of the type that believes that solving problems on wide scale requires tax funded government social spending

      What’s preventing this from happening in California?

      This is a serious question.Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    I mean… it’s giving so *shrug*.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    It is probably more immediately useful to skid row residents than the rich people who set up foundations that end up giving more in executive salaries and to “donor-advised funds” that are more about skirting the rules of foundations:

    • Avatar Lee Ratner in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      NYC always advised against direct giving to beggars but charity giving tends not to go to people who need it.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Lee Ratner says:

        It depends on the charity. Homeless shelters in many places are strictly charities with no direct gov involvement. Direct service charities are often good places to give to. Third party middle men like the United Way are not useful.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    A little Googling shows that Blue Face spent at least some of his childhood in LA, living in a neighborhood called Mid City. Looking at a map, Mid City doesn’t seem very far from Skid Row (though as an East Coster with limited knowledge of LA, I could be misjudging all this). So, it is possible he has a personal connection or decent read on what’s going on in Skid Row.

    I’ve only see one video of the event — the one shared here — and it was created by someone with no obvious affiliation with Blue Face.

    This leads me to think the intent was a sincere one, even if there may be issues with the implementation. Had it been an intentional “look at me” moment, I imagine he’d have done more to get folks to look at him. He did tweet out the video itself though didn’t retweet JaValle, though I don’t know what that means (from either a technical standpoint or in terms of “Twitter etiquette”). One person did reply with the video of Trump tossing paper towels to the crowd in Puerto Rico, which I thought was a pretty good contribution to the debate.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Kazzy says:

      For the non-LA folks, our Skid Row is the industrial area roughly bordered by Main St, Little Tokyo, Alameda and the Fashion district.

      Homeless people congregate there because there are no apartments or houses, just warehouses and factories. Which means lots of vacant lots where you can camp and not be shooed away. There are also a couple missions that provide beds and food.

      Which is to say, no one was born and raised on Skid Row. Everyone there traveled from somewhere else, from areas where everyone thinks there are no homeless.

      A person in Brentwood or Pasadena or Malibu who becomes an alcoholic or starts hearing voices will never be allowed to stay there, so they eventually land miles away from where they dropped out, in that area of last resort.

      And their former neighbors who volunteer time at Christmas at the Skid Row mission will scratch their heads and wonder why LA has such a homeless problem when their nice neighborhood certainly doesn’t.Report

  10. Kazzy’s point about Trump’s Puerto Rican thing strikes a chord with me. That’s what I thought of when I saw the video. I don’t know anything about this guy, so maybe the comparison is inapt. It does seem insulting to throw around crumbs and watch the crowd scramble for them. (Of course, the strongest among the crowd will probably get more crumbs. But who’s counting. #socialdarwinsim)

    But I guess, as others have said, it’s better to give something than nothing, and it’s probably better to give in a matter that demeans the recipients than not to give at all. So good for him. I guess.Report