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Looking for Help That Helps

By Joe Wessels · January 2nd, 2008 · Wessels

Every Saturday -- with no let-up foreseen through the winter ahead -- a bunch of well intentioned do-gooders line up in front of my house to give away food. And it drives me crazy.

I live in Over-the-Rhine along Washington Park, the public space sitting on two blocks between Race, Elm, 12th and 14th streets. Many of the park's visitors are typically either blitzed or high, plus probably homeless or down on their luck. Or they're the sellers of ways to become blitzed or high.

I moved here in July 2006. Since then, I've seen many folks, typically church groups, find the park to be the perfect place to peddle all sorts of messages, many involving Jesus Christ, to those willing to hear it in exchange for, say, a pulled-pork sandwich.

Once a Presbyterian graveyard before the city bought it up and moved the corpses to Spring Grove Cemetery in the late 1800s, Washington Park is one of the city's oldest parks, a green oasis in the middle of the ever-evolving turmoil that is my neighborhood. The 6 1/2-acre park, now bigger after the demolition of Washington Park School, is set to be transformed in the coming years with the addition of a green space bigger than a football field, a dog park, a splash playground, a concession stand, a new restroom facility, a new playground, a re-configuration of the walkway, the controversial removal of the deep-water swimming pool and basketball courts and the lowering of the historic bandstand.

Cincinnati Park Board regulations now prevent charitable groups from giving away food inside the park -- some complained it dirtied up the park too much -- so now the groups circumvent the rule and do it on the surrounding sidewalk.

Feeding hungry people is noble.

I have no problem with the effort. Nor am I terribly disturbed by the pieces of trash on the ground, the over-stuffed garbage cans that stay filled all weekend or the spilled barbeque sauce left on the sidewalk to dry until the next rain washes it away.

What gets me is all this do-goodedness isn't getting anybody anywhere -- aside from a few defensive suburbanites feeling pretty good about themselves. When I went down, grabbed some food and approached the folks from the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale who are down at the park nearly every Saturday, I was surprised by their response.

I shared my thoughts with the Vineyard volunteers, suggesting that maybe instead of giving away food on the sidewalk they ought to try partnering with one of the two churches right on the park's periphery. Those churches already give away food at various times -- maybe they could lend some space to the visitors.

I got blank stares.

So I e-mailed Vineyard leadership. Initially, I got a few replies from the senior pastoral staff, eager to communicate. For several weeks, though, phone calls and follow up e-mails haven't been returned.

The neighborhood does need a suburbanite's help, rest assured. Pastors at both churches along the park, Nast Trinity and First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, could use help that, well, actually helps. It takes a little more thought than a sign-up sheet on Sundays, a few hours on Saturday, a van ride, some food, a few smiles, some heartfelt prayers and some garbage bags.

Leaders at both Washington Park churches want to couple their meals with outreach and other services teaching people how to read and helping them get daycare or a job or a GED so it's not just a once-in-a-while handout that never goes anywhere -- and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

It is time that groups work together, from both within the neighborhood and those concerned enough to come down who really want to help. It would be better, however, if the help were actually aimed at making a lasting difference -- not a feel-good couple of hours satisfying some mission requirements, which is the way it seems to me.

That way, Over-the-Rhine can develop into a mixed socio-economic environment helping the area flourish for everyone.

Giving handouts on a weekly basis that litter up the park and discourage personal accountability do little other than diminish hunger for a few hours. It also results in the same outcome seen for years.

A little attitude shift from the do-gooders could wind up actually helping more than it's currently hurting.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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