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Going beyond a bench press

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- OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
The “homeless Jesus” sculpture in Davidson challenges us to treat the homeless with love.

As Charlotte contemplates ripping out uptown benches to discourage the homeless from using them, it should remember the message of a similar bench up the road in Davidson that has been blessed by the Pope.

That bench is a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz called “Homeless Jesus.” A figure lies under a blanket on a bench, just his bare feet sticking out, nail holes and all. Schmalz says it is a reminder of Matthew 25:40, that when you did it to the least of these, you did it unto Jesus. Were Jesus around today, Schmalz told Observer correspondent Marjorie Dana, he would be comforting the homeless and addicted.

That would be good for Charlotte Center City Partners to keep in mind as it pushes the city to remove benches within one block of The Square at Trade and Tryon streets. The homeless people who are rousted need real and enduring help, not just a kick in the pants.

Michael Smith, head of Center City Partners, seems to get that. Smith made clear last week that he believes homeless people congregating uptown is bad for business, and for the city’s image. Thus the tidying. But he also described the bench blowup as part of a bigger plan to get Charlotte’s homeless the help they need. Smith said his organization will help fund a social worker to connect the uptown homeless with that help.

Whatever your motivation – keeping CEOs happy or caring for your fellow man – everyone can agree that dozens of homeless people gathering on uptown streets is not ideal. Center City Partners’ plan is an opportunity to refocus civic attention on the real solution – not sweeping the homeless under the rug, but providing them permanent housing with supportive services that help them redirect their lives.

And there’s the rub. Moving benches takes a wrench. Solving the homeless problem is wrenching. While Charlotte has chipped away at homelessness in recent years, it still lacks the money – that is, the will – to end it. Instead, we spend even more money housing them in jail, treating them in emergency rooms and removing benches.

Clamping down uptown will probably successfully disperse the homeless from Trade and Tryon. Leaders of the effort then need to work just as hard at solving the problem as moving it. That means dedicating money for rental vouchers, job training, mental health counseling and so on.

Former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl is spearheading a drive to raise $45 million for the symphony and other arts organizations. We love the arts, and believe McColl’s efforts will be vital to sustaining a vibrant cultural sector. It’s remarkable, though, that this city can pony up to build great arts institutions while not raising a fraction of that amount to help the people the arts patrons trip over as they leave the show.

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