Monday, June 18, 2007

Encountering the homeless

Most of us have or will encounter a homeless or otherwise desperate individual at some point in our lives. From the social and political perspective, there is the consideration of the effect of directly giving them cash. After all, some people are professional panhandlers. This doesn't mean that they cannot use the money, but that they are really polished at their routines. Some may even become aggressive, following people around or assertively targeting those who have given them money in the past. Often they are polished and at times overly persistent or even rude in their routines because they have been doing it a while and may be supporting a drug or alcohol habit. So, conventional wisdom goes, if you give them cash you are rewarding their behavior and possibly enabling a self-destructive vice. Then there is also the concern about panhandlers staking out certain areas and the affect on local businesses.

I have encountered homeless people several times in the city of Pittsburgh, and even a few months ago on a trip to Philadelphia (to save money I took trains/subways and walked from stations in less than affluent neighborhoods). I have never encountered an aggressive panhandler, though I cannot say what the people I met would have used any donations to purchase. Most have been not just non-rude, but extremely polite, and several smile and say a prayer ("God bless you, sir") even if I don't give them a penny. I realize that this is common and often a part of the aforementioned polished routine, but in any case, that has been my predominant homeless person encounter.

A common solution to this problem is to ignore the homeless person. Make no eye contact. Don't say a word. Don't give any indication of acknowledgment of the person or their request. In some places, area businesses will sell coupons or vouchers that the homeless can redeem for food and non-alcoholic beverages, so people can feel OK about giving something to those who say they need money for food. Others keep subway tokens and bus transfers on them to give to people near public transportation stations to offer instead of cash for those who claim they need a little more change to get back to a shelter or a friend's place. But not all cities or neighborhoods offer such coupons and vouchers and even if they did, many people simply couldn't afford to buy them to hand out every time they went for a walk down a certain street or by a certain park. Which seems to leave the prior choice between ignoring the homeless or giving them cash money, and for many people neither of these are satisfactory options.

There is another option - that is, something we can do regardless of whether or not we choose to give them money.

I do not claim it is earthshaking, or astonishingly original. But I have been giving it some thought. Acknowledge them. Talk to them. Ask them their names and tell them I am pleased to meet them. Tell them they will be in my thoughts/prayers. Treat them with a minimum of dignity and respect as human beings who can at least be recognized as such. So sometimes I can't or won't give them cash money, and that fact and their condition makes me feel awkward - does that mean I should make myself feel a little better by ignoring them and then forgetting I saw them? And if I see the same person again, perhaps I can even do him or her the honor of not only greeting them again, but using his or her name. Is that really so much to ask of me? Is that really to much to ask of you?

I don't think so, and I hope I remember that the next time I meet someone in such a situation.

1 comment:

  1. This is what I do - treat folks in this situation with dignity and compassion, even if I can't help otherwise.


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