Posts tagged homelessness
There’s an intersection a few blocks from my house where the beggars assemble. You’d probably recognize it (even if you haven’t been here) because it’s a common suburban scene:
It’s a busy intersection just off the freeway. Every beggar stakes out their own corner. If there are newcomers and no corners are free, they’ll have to beg down the street a little, or maybe on the median. Definitely not on someone else’s corner. The procedure is simple. When the light turns red and the cars start backing up near a particular beggar’s corner, he or she walks around with a cardboard sign saying how homeless or hungry or pregnant he or she is. When the light turns green, the beggar can go relax leaning against a pole or sitting on the curb.
Sometimes it’s awkward when you see a familiar beggar, especially if you’ve interacted with them before. Being a beggar is a surprisingly public position. Of course the great thing about recognizing familiar beggars is seeing their signs change day by day, especially if they have a sense of humor. Everyone loves a clever cardboard sign.
One beggar stands out to me from the intersection by our house, and it’s not because of his clever signs. It’s because of his cell phone.
He’s always out on the same corner. He does the normal routine, showing his sign during the red lights, but when the light turns green and the cars pull away, he goes and sits on a chair that he has stashed in the bushes. And I’ve seen him sitting there talking on his cell phone multiple times.
Now I know what I’m about to say is very hypocritical considering my last post, but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t buy it. I know that cell phone bills are less money than rent, and I know that someone could have some kind of prepaid phone without having an address or a job or a credit score. It just seems to me that a person with enough sense to own and operate a cell phone would have the sense to cancel his service before things got so tough that he would need to go out begging on the street.
The truth is that I don’t know anything about this particular man or what his story is. I don’t know if he’s capable of working and has found that panhandling pays better, or if he really is in need of help and can’t help himself. I don’t know if he has a cell phone so he can call his wife at home and chat while he’s out collecting change, or if someone gave it to him so that he can try to find a job. I don’t know if he’s talking to buddies or potential employers when I see him talking on it. So I realize that it’s wrong of me to be so skeptical of him, but I’d be dishonest if I only told the stories of the homeless people that I felt sympathy for and didn’t acknowledge the other side of this issue being on my mind so much.
One day after I’d driven past that man on the way home, I realized why the cell phone beggar bothers me so much (and subsequently vented my frustrations to Kelly). It’s not that he has a cell phone or a panhandling routine or a chair in the bushes. It’s not even my suspicions that he’s faking the need that he’s in. It’s what I can imagine it doing to the people that are in real need.
If someone (whether it’s really the case with this man or not) begs and seeks help when they don’t really need it, I think they’re robbing both aid and compassion from the truly needy. When kind people see him, they donate a few bucks that otherwise could have gone to someone in real need. When less-kind people see him, it just reinforces their belief that homelessness is a choice that deserves no sympathy.
I don’t know how to tell who is in real need and who isn’t, and maybe the right answer is that it’s not my place to judge their motives at all. But I do feel that if there are people who could help themselves and choose not to, that they are contributing to the greater problem and taking advantage of those that really do need help. And if that is the case, don’t I kind of have an obligation to make some kind of judgment call as to who really deserves my help?
I remember waiting for the bus in Salt Lake one day while a bag lady with a shopping cart was making her way down the sidewalk. Her shopping cart was so full of cargo that things would fall out every few feet and she’d have to stop to pick them up.
I must have muttered something like “that sucks” out loud, because the man standing next to me at the bus stop answered me:
“Choices,” he said, as though correcting me.
At first I honestly thought that maybe he knew the lady or her story so that he could say something like that, but it only took a moment to realize that it was just his opinion of the homeless. I was bothered that he had said it, but I said nothing.
I still regret not going to help her put her things back in the cart.
It was just barely a year ago that Kelly and I moved out of our apartment in Salt Lake. We were using a POD to move so that we wouldn’t have to drive a U-Haul truck across the Cascade mountains in the middle of the winter (which ended up being a great choice: it was hard enough getting the little Honda over those mountains while they were covered in thick snow). We’d already fixed the schedule for the POD, so we had to scramble (and go without sleep) to get everything packed in time, but we made it (barely).
We spent our last night in our basement-sweet-basement the same way that we would spend our first nights in our apartment here in Seattle: on a blow up mattress in an otherwise empty apartment.
The next day we cleaned the apartment and packed up the car to go. We had some things that we weren’t taking with us, either extra boxes that we needed to recycle or things that we needed to donate. We had other errands to run before we drove out of town (both moving and Christmas preparations) so we split up to get it all done.
Among the things that we were donating was a pair of pillows. I don’t know if we thought that the DI wouldn’t take them or if we had some other reasons, but for some reason we thought that it would be better to give the pillows to the homeless instead. That was on my errand route, along with the recycling (which I would have been just as happy to throw away, but you know Kelly). So I hunted around for a recycle bin big enough to hold cardboard boxes, and then headed over to the homeless shelter. (I had contemplated offering the boxes to the homeless, too, but it just seemed a little too much like rubbing it in, so I stuck with the pillows.)
It was late by the time I got to the shelter, and the street was empty (unlike other times when I’d been running past there and the street was full of homeless people). At first I was a little confused about which building it was; for some reason I’d always thought that it was on the opposite side of the road. It didn’t help that the sign said something generic, like “community center”. There was another sign on the building, though, saying that I could drive around back with the donations, honk, and someone would come out to get them. But there were hours for the donation drop-off, and I was there too late. I felt stupid, and I almost turned around and drove away.
(Have you ever sat outside of a business and been indecisive about whether you should go inside or not? Maybe you’re thinking of getting some gift and you’re not sure if it’s right, or maybe you’re at some office building without an appointment and you’re afraid of being laughed to scorn for just walking in uninvited. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s a familiar feeling.)
As I was sitting there getting in and out of my car, a homeless man walked by. He had been looking in a garbage can down the street and was now moving on to another one. As he walked past, he asked me if I knew what time it was. I told him, and he walked on. There wasn’t anything more to the exchange than that, but for some reason that did it for me.
I walked up to the main doors with my pillows, still feeling stupid, convinced that they’d just tell me that I should have read the sign outside and known to come during donation hours. The doors were locked, but the lady at the front desk saw me and buzzed me in.
Inside the air smelled like urine. It wasn’t the sadly subtle kind of smell that a nursing home has. It reeked of it. It was almost over-powering.
“Front desk” might be the wrong word for where the lady that had let me in was sitting. It was just a folding table (like from a cultural hall event) with a clipboard where she had been letting people sign in. She asked what I was there for, and I sheepishly told her I had these pillows and thought someone might like them. She didn’t seem phased at all, and just sent me down the hall to (what I think was) the nurses’ station to give them the pillows.
When I got to the end of the hallway I saw the scene that makes me still think of this event. There were probably 40 people there, lying on the floor, fully clothed and covered in blankets. I don’t know what the rooms looked like, but I assume they were full if all of these people were out here on the hallway floor.
I gave the man at the nurses’ station the pillows. He offered a receipt for tax purposes, which obviously I didn’t need for my measly donation. And that was it. No further exchange. I left and drove away.
It was such a small moment in my life. The whole thing probably only lasted 10 minutes. It’s funny how sometimes small moments have big memories.
I work in downtown Seattle these days, and I’m constantly surrounded by homeless people. I don’t know if there is more homelessness here than in other cities, but it’s definitely ever-present. I see these people every day, and they’re always on my mind.
I think one of the reasons that it’s so heart-breaking for me is that it seems like a problem without a solution. I don’t know how to help these people. So many of them are riddled with mental or physical disease, that I don’t feel like the few bucks that I could spare for any individual could possibly help them dig themselves out of their hole, even if they are in the right mind enough to use it wisely.
I wish I knew of some reliable charitable organization, something that seemed like it was actually making a difference. Maybe there’s something that at least consistently relieves the suffering of these people, even if making a difference in solving the problem itself is an impossible task. Maybe you have a suggestion of what I should do to help.
So, because I don’t know what else to do, and because I’m constantly worried about them, I’m going to write on my blog about it. I had started writing some stories in this post to explain how I feel, but it quickly started getting too long to read. So instead I’ve taken out the stories and I’ll post them separately over the next few days.