Op-ed: Berkeley’s new donation boxes obfuscate underlying issues

It’s no accident that the newly launched “Positive Change Donation Program”, a partnership of the Downtown Berkeley Association, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and City of Berkeley, was introduced at the same time that new anti-homeless downtown measures were passed. Donation box programs are in vogue, with similar programs in Indianapolis, Denver, Pasadena, and Orlando, used as a karmic counter-balance when stricter anti-homeless enforcement is implemented. (And while Berkeley aggressively pursues legal enforcement of its own stricter anti-homeless measures, it’s ironic that the city was recently willing to flout the law with regard to allocating human service funding.)

But city-sponsored donation boxes fall far short of what is actually needed to solve the crisis of homelessness in our communities, and promoting them usurps public time, energy, and resources that are needed elsewhere.

No matter what is raised, it will not in any way “improve homelessness” (the project’s goal according to Berkeley City Council Member Jesse Arreguín). Mass homelessness, apart from situation-specific occasional instances of homelessness, is the result of failed public policy and needs public policy solutions.

We will solve homelessness by reducing barriers to the creation of new affordable housing, incentivizing landlords to accept low income renters, improving our public schools, and increasing wages so that all who work can afford rent, food, and basic living costs. No matter how many clever and creative end-runs we try to make around that reality, it will not go away.

Donation boxes are another incarnation of ‘vouchers’, a prior attempt that failed in Berkeley and other cities (Santa Cruz, San Francisco) to offer an alternative to giving spare change to panhandlers: vouchers could be redeemed at select businesses, preventing their use for alcohol, for example. (Never mind that a simpler alternative already exists: don’t give change, if you choose not to.)

It is worth noting that Orlando’s donation box program raised $2,027 in three years – just $27 more than the cost of installing the boxes, and the jury is out on all other cities except Denver, which raises a large sum primarily through boxes installed at its international airport, not the downtown locations.

And if the boxes are actually intended to “improve homelessness,” why was there no competitive selection process to determine the best use of funds? Council Member Arreguín is quoted as saying “Berkeley Food and Housing Project [BFHP] has faced a lot of cuts over the years, so any money toward them will go a long way.” In fact, BFHP’s multi-million dollar budget is one of the largest among Berkeley’s homeless-serving nonprofits (along with BOSS). If sheer financial need was the determining factor, there are smaller nonprofits who face a more challenging financial picture than BFHP, including Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center, Berkeley Drop-in Center, Homeless Action Center, and Suitcase Clinic, among others. Obviously, financial need was not the core issue. BFHP was selected based on relationships it has cultivated with DBA and elected officials. Let’s just be honest about that, so we can focus on whether or not these boxes will actually do any good.

If a significant sum is raised through the boxes, it’s unfortunate that funds will be allocated without an open selection process that identified the most promising use of funds. And if the amount raised is too small to make any real difference, the boxes should be removed, because their presence would intentionally mislead donors that their change is making a difference. Then let’s turn our attention back to the inequity-producing policy failings that are the actual problem.

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Sonja Fitz is the Director of Development for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, and has worked in downtown Berkeley for 28 years.