Need a penny? Take a penny. Have a penny? Leave a penny. 

Sentiments often seen at convenience stores, usually scrawled on a piece of paper next to a dish with a few pennies, nickels and dimes. 

Is it just a simple way to help others? Or a step on the slippery slope of socialism? At the other end of the spectrum, there likely are people who prefer the message: “Go earn your own damn penny.”

Actually, our options are not one or the other, which seems to be how so much of our world is framed today. Often, that’s a false choice, a construct purposely created to foment division and discord, that encourages “taking sides.” In fact, most times our options are neither A-B-C vs. X-Y-Z, but somewhere in the rational, reasonable middle.

Frankly, I’m not so sure D and W are so rational anymore, either. And that’s at the heart of our problem today. That rational, common-sense middle is getting smaller as the extremists at each end take up more space, where they demand, “Choose this or that.”

Isn’t there another option? Maybe we can try it on a smaller scale. Maybe take a more-targeted approach? Maybe we should bring in more agencies, with the expertise to address the concerns. Yes, maybe. And, maybe not. Maybe a critical examination of all of the factors indicates the best course is to find another way entirely.  

Maybe, just maybe, the best intentions are not aligned with the best results. 

I was living in Miami during the Mariel boatlift, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro opened his prisons and hospitals in 1980 and let more than 100,000 souls flood onto the beaches of South Florida. Freedom, like water, finds the cracks, and the damn had burst. There were another 25,000 Haitians arriving at the same time. The city was overwhelmed, and something had to be done. A huge tent city was built under the highways to house and process the new arrivals.

I was living in Dallas in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, flooding the city and driving people from their homes. Again, desperate humans streamed into border states like Texas, looking for help and hope. Housing those people was a massive humanitarian need. 

I drive through Eugene each day, and see people living anywhere they can, it seems. Well, also living in plenty of places they can’t, according to laws and ordinances. City leaders there, and elsewhere around the country, remain challenged to find a solution that is humanitarian and practical. 

Cottage Grove’s city leaders made a decision to create infrastructure around warming shelters to try and address housing for the homeless on the coldest of nights – when temperatures drop below 29 degrees.

These kinds of shelters require intensive volunteer participation – well beyond well-intentioned people and committed hours. It’s training – and a lot of it – to help volunteers be in position to handle all of the reasons people might be homeless. And, of course, adhering to public health guidelines related to the pandemic. 

Larger cities and communities are able to invest greater resources into training, oversight and execution. Towns such as Cottage Grove and Creswell are different.

It’s not a question of whether our local communities are all-in or all-out on warming shelters. That’s just too narrow a view, too tiny a slice. Sure, it’s easy to be “all-in” on the concept. The bigger question is whether our communities are able to help others in a smart, practical manner. 

The track record indicates our city leaders and citizen volunteers have answered the call around humanitarian efforts. And all would agree that more can always be done.

We all see the reality of people and families in need of food and shelter; it’s right in front of us each day. “Helping people” is one of our best intentions, and a natural reflex for most people. We should take smart and responsible steps that work with each community’s resources.

Noel Nash is publisher of The Chronicle.