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There are many wonderful things about December – peppermint mochas, “Santa Tell Me,” the new taco-themed Christmas pajamas I just bought – but nothing is as heartwarming as the displays of generosity that tend to take place at this time of year.

There are food drives, blanket drives, gift drives – I still get teary-eyed thinking about the time I ran errands at the Point Loma Target while SDPD was doing its annual Christmas “Shop With a Cop” day, watching burly officers hold hands with excited young kids as they picked out gifts together.

That’s why it’s so uncomfortable to point out something about Americans and giving: We’re really, really bad at it.

Every disaster or crisis that makes the news tends to generate a flood of well-intentioned but ultimately useless donations – many of which end up being trashed by overwhelmed charities.

“Like clockwork, after the smoke has cleared or the floodwaters have receded, relief organizations and government agencies are stuck with huge piles of stuff that no one really wants or needs,” the Sacramento Bee wrote of donations following the Carr fire.

More recently, the Union-Tribune put together a guide of how best to help migrants at the border, because so many donated items are either unneeded or – because of rules regarding what can cross the border – simply can’t get to who they’re intended for. Often what is most needed are unsexy and unremarkable items that would never occur to most people to donate.

“They’ve received so many supplies,” Daryn Longman, co-president the International Health Collective, told the Union-Tribune. “They need shelving units. That’s something that people don’t think about.”

Several years ago, I interviewed the founder of recovers.org, an online hub that helps communities direct resources and volunteers where they’re needed in an emergency.

Caitria O’Neill began studying areas around the country that were recovering from disasters.

“In every area it was the same. Untrained locals acted as the interface between the official and unofficial resources pouring in and those who needed help. In every area, they needed the same tools but had to piece them together themselves,” O’Neill said.

It happens all over the world, in fact.

In her fantastic book published this year exploring the benefits of a universal basic income, Annie Lowrey notes that money, instead of stuff, is by far the most efficient and effective way to help communities in need.

“Lowrey describes seeing people’s houses in Kenya stuffed with Toms shoes that they didn’t need—each pair donated when someone buys a pair themselves—as well as soccer balls and nets that do little for a family that can’t buy enough food,” The Nation noted.

Many people turn up their noses at the idea of donating cash. It’s cold and impersonal. And whatever our best intentions, there’s always a worry in the back of our minds that money could be misused.

That’s where that other magical mainstay of the holidays – faith – must come in. If you really want to help people or organizations in need this holiday season, give them money – and trust that they’ll use it wisely.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Montgomery High officials agreed to let SDPD officers arrest four students on campus under the guise of an active shooter drill, a move that troubled many observers.

The Sweetwater Union High School District, which Montgomery High sits within, has financial troubles to grapple with too: A new audit raises “substantial doubt” about the district’s ability to remain fiscally solvent moving forward.

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If the city goes through with creating its own power agency, it will likely look similar to the San Diego County Water Authority: an agency with a board made up of local officials, with its own staff that leans on outside consultants.

Ry Rivard explained how the whole thing would work, and potential challenges, on this week’s podcast.

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As politicians at the local and state levels work to address the housing crisis, they’re exploring killing requirements that developers include parking in new housing projects. That’s on the table in San Diego, thanks to a proposal by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and it’s also worked into a bill from San Francisco Sen. Scott Weiner as part of a reworked proposal to build more housing near transit and jobs centers.

Meanwhile, in Encinitas, residents barely able to afford housing are pushing back against their neighbors’ assertions that new housing projects would disrupt neighborhood character.

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Things in federal court remain pretty chaotic as the government continues its zero tolerance policy: In the latest error, prosecutors charged a U.S. citizen with illegally entering the country.

Businesses at the border are still reeling from the recent port of entry shutdown. Maya Srikrishnan examined the last few times border traffic has been shut down or significantly disrupted over security scares.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Despite a reputation to the contrary, Karl Lagerfeld is a man of simple needs: Give him his sketching paper, his drawing materials and his cat and he is content. … Granted, the paper is made just for him, the drawing materials are specially sourced and his cat, Choupette, enjoys the ministrations of dedicated servants.” – Rich people, man.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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