Advocates Slam 'Creative' Homeless Solutions

U.S. cities and businesses have been coming up with a variety of ways to deal with homelessness – and advocates for the homeless apparently don't like any of them.

Work for food, panhandler registration, homes at sea: Officials and business reps say these solutions help the homeless – and get them out of the public's way. But advocates for the homeless say these so-called "creative" solutions miss the point about homelessness: that it is an economic and political problem.

The creative solution that got the most media attention in recent months was Pizza Schmizza's (search) work-for-food program. The Portland, Ore., pizza chain, founded by Andre Jnjehan, got attention for allowing homeless people to hold signs advertising the store in exchange for pizza and Coke.

"It was an attempt to stop aggressive panhandlers outside our store. People are hungry – they hold a sign and we give them a slice, or a ride or bus fare," he said.

But Donald Whitehead, executive director of National Coalition for the Homeless (search), called the effort "exploitation."

"Any person who works any job in America should get at least minimum wage ... or better, a living wage. The signs, which say 'I'm holding this sign instead of panhandling,' are degrading. And there are plenty of places in Portland that provide meals for the homeless. I think it's just a publicity stunt on the part of the owner," he said.

Jnjehan, who admits he "loves marketing," jokes that his homeless sign-holders are "outstanding employees."

"At least they're away from the store [now]," he said.

Another recent program that received a lot of media attention was Cincinnati's panhandler registration plan (search). Last week, the Cincinnati City Council passed an ordinance requiring people who want to beg for money to register with the city, in order to "get aggressive panhandlers off the street" and presumably allow harmless ones to stay there.

But Georgine Getty, director of the Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, said the ordinance deprives individuals of their right to free speech.

"You are being treated like a criminal," she said.

A third idea that made headlines was New York City's plan to get the homeless off the streets by sheltering them in retired cruise ships. This program was officially sunk in June "because of financial and logistical hurdles," NYC Department of Homeless Services (search) spokesman Jim Anderson said. But it couldn't have helped that advocates railed against the program when it was introduced in the fall.

"It was another myopic solution," Whitehead said. "It was just to make them disappear."

According to Whitehead, there is only one real solution.

"The only thing that needs to happen is the political will to build affordable housing in this country," he said. "The idea that we don't have funding available is a myth. We need to re-prioritize the money."

As for President Bush's plan for to provide permanent housing and services to the "chronically homeless," Whitehead complained that it directs the majority of the funding to the 10 percent of homeless who suffer from substance abuse and ill mental health.

While he likes that the president has "at least started to talk about the issue," Whitehead, a formerly substance-addicted homeless person himself, said poverty, not ill health, is the greatest reason for the rising number of homeless in this country, estimated at 2 to 3.5 million.

But as long as people are still roaming the streets, Jnjehan says plans like his are meant to help, not harm the homeless.

"There is a shred of dignity holding the sign rather than just begging on the street," he said. "They [the homeless] are grateful."

Jnejhan added that if advocates keep slamming every idea, people will stop trying to think of ways to help.

"It makes you gun-shy," he said.

Fox News' Jeff Goldblatt contributed to this report.