Don’t Use One Person’s Behavior to Prevent You From Helping Another
There are lots of reasons for not helping the homeless, just not very many good ones.
Reading Ryan Fan’s article, Stop worrying About How Homeless People Spend Your Money, got me thinking. In the article, he talks about our excuses for not giving to those who are homeless.
That encounter got me thinking about the usual misgivings in our minds for why we don’t give to the homeless, and those misgivings usually say “What if he/she is not actually homeless and just swindling me?” or “What if he/she is going to use my money to buy drugs?”
Truthfully, this isn’t generally an issue for me. I’ve always felt that it’s better to give to someone who may not really need it than to chance not giving to someone who does. I don’t give to everyone who asks, and sometimes I prefer to buy them something to eat. When I worked in Washington, D.C. I would make a point of keeping a few dollars with me every day for this purpose. Yet I realized that there are other excuses I make for not giving.
To be fair, my circumstances have changed, and I no longer have the money to give to people regularly, but if I have some spare change I’ll usually give it if someone asks. I think now though, more often than not, I won’t make a point of getting cash in order to have the spare change to give. Thinking about this I realized some of the reason why.
Living in Chicago, I run into homeless people every day, often a dozen or more. It is a different experience from anywhere I’ve lived before. In other cities I’ve lived in, there were areas that you were likely to run into homeless people and places you definitely wouldn’t. In Chicago, you run into homeless people panhandling everywhere you go. This includes residential areas, on the subway, in restaurants and bars, and even in banks, which I never encountered before. And I’ve found that there are differences in the way many of them act here as well.
In my experience, panhandles in Chicago, tend to be more assertive. Sometimes they can be aggressive. Not that this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but here it seems to be more common. I don’t mean that this applies to everyone, of course. But overall, I’ve been taken aback by the degree to which individuals approach you and the sometimes demanding way they do so.
There are some “regulars” that I run into almost daily. There’s a woman who is always along the main street where I walk. She makes a beeline towards anyone walking there, shouting out, “Excuse me, I need to ask you something!” repeatedly until you stop and speak to her. Then she gives a story about needing a room for the night which will only cost her $20 and she already has $10. When you say no, she takes it down to $5 telling you that you can afford it. She will follow you until you either give her something, she sees someone else who might be a better bet, or you threaten to call the police.
There’s a man who stands outside the subway station where I get off for my writing group, who says he has a daughter that needs to leave the hospital but they won’t release her until he can prove he has her insulin, but he can’t afford it. The station is nowhere near a hospital.
A woman with a small child who I often see in nearby Evanston, claims that the shelter she was staying in flooded, and she her “baby” have nowhere to go.
None of these people ever change their story.
Then there is a con that is commonplace here. Someone calls out saying they aren’t asking for any money, they just need a question answered. When you stop they thank you for not being afraid of them, and then ask for something that is not technically cash but clearly is the same thing such using your credit card to buy them something or tapping them onto the subway. When you point out that these things cost money, they will claim that the money is already on the card so it won’t cost you anything extra.
Often, if you give someone a dollar they will ask for a couple more, over and over again. Some people will literally jump in front of you, blocking your way, even if you are speaking on your phone, waving and loudly asking you to give them money. In other cases, when you say you have no cash on you, they will tell you where an ATM is so you can take out money for them. There is one man on a bike who waits outside the subway station where I live, and if you won’t give him anything he tries to follow you home until you threaten to call the police. Now whenever I see him I just hold up my phone, and he pedals off.
I’ve seen people begging for money, then get into expensive cars and drive off. I’ve heard others make deals with parents to give them a cut of whatever they earn if they let them use their children to create a better sob story. I’ve even had someone throw my money back at me yelling at me at the top of his lungs because the seventy three cents that I had given him, all the cash I had on me at the time, was such a small amount as to be insulting. Someone else cursed me out because the sixty cents I gave them included twelve pennies.
Some of this frightens me. A lot of it makes me indignant. How dare they think that my money should belong to them? If I’m willing to give them something of mine, what gives them the right to keep demanding more? They think it’s okay to order someone stop their phone conversation to hand them money and block their progress until they do so? They’re too good to accept change or pennies?
I don’t think any of these thoughts are out of proportion to such behavior. But I’ve realized that I’m using these instances for something else, mainly to justify not giving anything to anyone. While I can’t justify giving much or giving it often due to my financial circumstances, I still used to make a point of at least giving out a bit of change once a week or so. I felt that fifty or sixty cents wouldn’t make or break me, but it could go towards someone having enough to get something to eat.
But after being solely on foot for a month or so, I had become so annoyed with those who are clearly trying to scam people out of money or simply acting as if they have a right to whatever money you possess, that I made of point of not carrying even small amounts of change with me so I wouldn’t have anything to give.
I’m definitely not proud of this and when I read back these words I’m downright ashamed. I don’t think I need to give something to every person who asks; I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I also don’t think I need to be a doormat for people demanding what belongs to me. Just because someone is homeless doesn’t give them the right to bully people any more than anyone else.
But there are a number of homeless people out there that I’m sure are not that different from me. I don’t have to actually walk in their shoes to understand the difficulties they experience in their lives. Even though I haven’t managed to wind up on the streets at this point, there have been times I was very close and I know what it is like to live with frequent crises and constant fear. These people are human being in crisis.
And the truth is, money is not the only way to help them, it’s just the easiest. But instead of using my excuses as a cop out, I could choose to do something else that could benefit them. I could volunteer at a shelter. I could donate things to organizations that would give them to those in need. I can do something as simple as making eye contact, and offering a empathic nod, kind smile or friendly hello. At the end of the day, acknowledging someone and treating them with kindness and respect can be just as valuable a currency as money.
Thanks to Ryan Fan for the inspiration for this article.
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