Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Have I Become a Heartless Bastard?

Maybe. Or maybe I'm letting this get to me more than I should.

Context: there's a good number of homeless people who work the streets downtown where I work. They're kind of part of the background of working here; I never give them money, but there's one guy who I've given food to on several occasions, and he always appreciates it.

Specific context: Sunday, we drove into the UD for haircuts at Rudy's and lunch with Angela. After lunch, we decide some coffee is in order. Anglea suggests a coffee joint just down the street (University Way, often called "The Ave") from us. We start our journey at about the 4900 section of University and end at the 4600 section. By New York standards (which don't apply here), that's a journey of 3/10 of a mile. In actuality, it was probably closer to 400 feet, just a little longer than a football field. That's a guess based on what I remember of football fields from high school marching band.

We we walk out of the restaurant and turn right, heading towards our destination. There's a bus stop to our left. Under the awning are two homeless people. One of them says "I need fifty cents for my bus fare." Sure you do, pal. I keep walking and don't say anything - the old "ignore 'em" tack that typically works. This guy yells after me, "you probably have twenty bucks in your wallet" and says something incoherant. For the record, I had about four bucks in ones, largely because I don't have a need for cash here unless I'm getting coffee at Monorail. But that's a different story.

Next, maybe ten steps down the road, a guy comes down the stairs and gets in front of me and asks for money. I say "no" because I've made eye contact and keeps walking. He then starts following me, continuing to ask for money. Liz and Angela are walking behind me and Crabby, and I have to turn to make sure he doesn't go for purses or anything. He eventually stops following us, just as we come to...

Two homeless people positioned on either side of the sidewalk. As one unit, they ask for money. They're holding signs. I say, fairly loudly (as I'm still a little torqued from the guy following me and tired of being asked for my hard-earned money), "it's like a gauntlet down here today," which considering the circumstances is fairly appropriate. Well, one of the last two people overheard me and started yelling about how God would bless me and make me loving and blah blah blah.

Fuck this shit, I mean really. I worked at DHS, I know what my tax dollars already pay for. I know what charities do. There's no fucking excuse to ask me for money when you could get in a shelter, start looking for a goddamned job, get off the juice, unless you didn't want to. Maybe that's not entirely true, but there is a LOT out there and social workers will try to help. I know, I was one for two years.

But I also don't hand out money to people. Period. If I'm going to give someone money, they will give me something in return. Street musicians are the only people to whom I will give change for this very reason. I used to give money to bums in London all the time until I kept seeing the same bums in the same place, day after day, asking for handouts. What was my money going for exactly? Now food I'll give, but not money.

So I submit to you, dear readers: am I a heartless bastard? I've been going over and over this incident in my head. I don't think so, but I open it to the court of public opinion.

1 comment:

Roger Whitson said...

No, you aren't a heartless bastard--you just really buy into the ideology of capitalism, or you are at this moment and in the circumstances you describe. I can understand being annoyed by having people constantly ask for money--there are alot of homeless people in Gainesville who ask me for money quite frequently. My attitude is that I will help them if I can, but I don't feel guilty if I can't.

But I think that your reaction is quite indicative of an attitude that homeless people are "lazy" or that they can get help but choose not to. In reality, things are much more complicated. Homeless people can, in fact, be employed, work in a shelter and still not get enough money or food to survive. I know you've worked with poor people, and you've seen people who "cheat" the system. But, you shouldn't be so quick to judge about a person's circumstances--or their motives--when you don't know them.

If our government really cared about taking care of its citizens, you wouldn't have to deal with homeless people. "Pity would be no more/If we did not make people poor."--W.Blake. I think what you REALLY can't face is that you DO feel guilty, you do feel like you are a heartless bastard simply because you make enough money not to have to debase yourself by asking people--constantly--for help. But I also think that you are, at least partially, transferring that guilt onto the homeless person because s/he is an easy target. Give what you can, or what you want to give, and stop playing these games of responsibility with yourself and homeless people. True, there are services to help them, but there will always be people who either can't get help or simply don't want to get help in the way that you describe. They will always ask you for money, and you will be in a position to either give it to them (without knowing what they are going to do with it) or not.