I grew up being told to never give money to panhandlers or homeless people.
“It isn’t safe.”
“They’ll just spend it on drugs and alcohol.”
“Not all people are what they seem – some of them are just doing it as a scam.”
And so I wouldn’t give money to them.
My immediate response when they asked was to dismiss them without making eye contact, shaking my head and muttering “no,” or “no, I’m sorry,” or “I don’t have any cash on me.” I wouldn’t look directly at them. I wouldn’t make eye contact. I wouldn’t treat them like fellow human beings.
Then I read a book. “Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly.” And Susan Schorn talked about learning to look people in the eye – having to say no – having to be assertive. And I began to realize that, even if I wasn’t going to give these homeless guys* money, I could at least treat them with respect. So I said no, but I said it to them, not to the ground. And I didn’t avert my eyes or pretend they weren’t there.
Then I saw a video online. It was a guy wearing a sandwich board, asking for donations. People ignored him. They walked around him. They avoided him completely. Then he swapped his sign out. The new one said, “Fuck the poor.” And everyone wanted to tell him how wrong he was, how bad he was, what an asshole he was. But what’s the difference between acting like you don’t care and just straight out saying you don’t care?
A quote attributed to Ghandi says that
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
I was in Tampa. Tampa has a very high homeless population. On one of my last nights there, walking back to the hotel with a small group, we passed a homeless man on the drawbridge. He politely tried to stop us and ask us for some spare change. “Anything will help.” He was thin. Scraggly.
We all said “no” and kept walking.
And I realized that I was wearing that sandwich board with the “Fuck the poor” showing. Because while I might be treating him like a human being by acknowledging him, I wasn’t doing anything to help him, which is what I should also be doing seeing as how we were both human beings, too.
So I chased the guy after digging $5 out of my purse. My friends waited for me (later confiding they were worried he would toss me off the drawbridge…which seemed unlikely to me, as since they were half a block away, they probably wouldn’t have been able to help me in time anyway). He had passed another group, asked them for some money, and one of them had given him a dollar or two as well. But I still went ahead and pressed my bill into his hand, wished him a good night, and headed back to the hotel.
Because I was heading back to a hotel. A hotel where I was provided with multiple bottles of water and coffee every day. Where I had a nice, clean bed. A big bathroom. A balcony. A TV. A refrigerator and a microwave. Food stocked up for snacks and meals.
Maybe the guy was scamming, but I didn’t think so. And considering all the other things I’ve blown $5 on, this felt like a pretty good use of the money.
*Because they’re almost always male, which is weird because almost 40% of the homeless population is female, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.