Charity solicitations: Will the public square become oppressive?

As times get harder, more charities may take to soliciting on the streets. And most of us may become hesitant to look around, lest we look like an easy mark for a solicitor.

Crosscut archive image.

Dialogue Direct canvasser at First and Pine

As times get harder, more charities may take to soliciting on the streets. And most of us may become hesitant to look around, lest we look like an easy mark for a solicitor.

I haven’t even encountered the specific group, Dialogue Direct, that Judy Lightfoot focuses on in her recent Crosscut article, “In-your-face solicitations on downtown streets,” but my bells were ringing with irritation over the tactics I was reading about. Given all the social cuts anticipated with more Republicans (and Democrats!) in charge, I begin to wonder if every trip to the grocery store, any slowing down near a freeway entrance, or any saunter on a public street will have me doing more than just buying a Real Change paper (my fourth this week), feeling guilt for not giving a dollar guilt toll to veterans or Native Americans in order to enter the freeway, or giving to some neighborhood cause. Now, added on to these very local and visible daily requests for funds, comes an organized “charity campaign” run by a national for-profit organization? (Think job opportunity for all those young ‘uns with no other options.) My mind says “newfangled, non-profit panhandling,” the worst kind because it actually could make potential givers reactive, retracting with such distaste that they may never give again — to anything. 

With the downward turn of our economy and the refusal of the government to consider raising taxes or closing loopholes, I expect we will see more and more of this: the poorly employed but still chirpy haranguing the few middle class still walking city streets, while those people in a better position to give remain barricaded behind their smoky-windowed limos (exaggeration, but you get my drift). I’m imagining the Dialogue Direct solicitors as gnats dive-bombing those willing to keep the city vibrant by actually coming into the city for their business. These tactics of harassment, it seems to me, create even less sense of community — everyone dodging from one storefront business to bus stop, to Pike Place Market, to restaurant or whatever, avoiding eye contact with one and all, avoiding even looking at the cityscape for fear of appearing too dreamy or approachable. 

I don’t have any right to witness against these new folks of Dialogue Direct, since I’ve not been walking the downtown corridor this summer. However, if the city hears enough from folks who do feel assaulted, then perhaps this for-profit group (soliciting on behalf of a non-profit) will be curtailed. I can just hear the “freedom of speech” arguments for such assaults on our time and peace of mind. These are two aspects of modern life that seem to be on the exit ramp! I’m chuckling because businesses have always ramped up to get panhandlers out of downtown, moving the desperate and needy from one neighborhood to another. At least panhandlers were individual— i.e. themselves! — for-profit activists. 

I’ve always been offended by the squeaky cleanness of downtown Seattle, but I do understand the business people wanting corridors of flow without constant irritation. When I was on Real Change’s first Board, I remember going to a meeting at Pike Place Market with Tim Harris to explain that all the vendors weren’t junkies and that while the organization had no control over what the vendors did in their off time, there was a rule they couldn’t sell while nodding off. I thought that was a pretty funny meeting back in 1996. These charity gangsters are more of a problem as far as I’m concerned. At least, Real Change is a viable charity with the giver coming away with a product and proof (the vendors reappear week after week) of community engagement. I think eventually the businesses will have to come together with the City Council to get this new “charity wave” under control.


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