Monday, October 6, 2008

To Give Or Not To Give

I have heard a lot of discussion lately on homelessness and panhandling. In Atlanta, where panhandlers are known to be aggressive and pushy, even violent, the city has installed meters, similar to parking meters in locations around downtown. They ask that rather than giving to panhandlers, you put that amount into the meter where it can be redistributed to social service agencies that support the homeless.

Other cities that have many tourists and many panhandlers are doing similar things. The goal is to curb the panhandling, providing a comfort level so the city can draw more tourism. And to redirect the money from those that are fraudulent or addicted and to get it to those that truly need it. It is very controversial and there are valid arguments both in support of and against these efforts.

I have heard many discussions on this topic. You can't talk about panhandling without the lines blurring across homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.

We all have stories, from our own experiences or shared with us by friends, of giving a panhandler food or offering a job and having them laugh or cuss at you saying "I just want the money Pal".

We have heard the stories of students who, as a social experiment for class, dress in shabby clothes, stand on a downtown street corner and ask for money. It is not uncommon for them to make as much as $50 an hour. And there are many for whom this is their full-time job, not just a social experiment.

My heart breaks for those who really need help but my logical mind reminds me that there is help available. As I visit my son downtown, I see the same people over and over and my son calls them by name, chatting with them for a minute and reminding them that no, he doesn't have anything to give them today either. He lives around the corner from 2 shelters.

I was fascinated by the documentary Reversal Of Fortune. the story of Ted Rodrique who had been homeless off and on for 20 years. One day, as Ted scrounged in his normal dumpster for cans and bottles, he found a briefcase containing $100,000 that had been hidden there by the filmmaker, Wayne. Wayne says he was inspired to make Reversal of Fortune because of his daily interactions with homeless people in Los Angeles. His question - '"What would happen if I actually was able to give someone $100,000 and the free will to do with it what they wanted to do?" "Would that turn their life around or would it create more problems?"

Ted started out well and with the best of intentions to improve his life. But between his demons, old habits, and a series of bad choices, within a year Ted was homeless again. You can read more detail about this story here. It is quite fascinating.

I don't think meters will solve this problem but I don't think giving panhandlers money solves it either. Some people want to be in the position they are in. Others need help that our guilty couple of dollars cannot give them. I think Rabbi Shmuley has the best advice. He suggests giving when you can give, not giving when you feel you shouldn't, but always treating the person with dignity and respect. And always look them in the eye. No matter the circumstances, they are a human being.


Ruth D~ said...

This is a tough subject. A painful one. My oldest . . . has problems. He's never panhandled, but he's been homeless. And yet . . . I can not just give money to every ahnd that is out. This is a post I wrote:

The Ants Go Marching


Wanda said...

You have spoken so well on this subject Tere...

I truly think Rabbi Shmuley had great advice.

I have bought food for homeless, and a few times I have given money, but lately it seems strange a homeless man on the corner with a carboard sign is talking on a cell phone.....

Thanks for making us think again.


Tere said...

Wanda - oh my gosh I have seen that too!

Ruth - It is so hard to know what to do as a parent. There have been times I have helped my son with money, who has simply been irresponsible in the past, because I knew the frame of mind he was in and didn't want to see him under the bridge downtown. I gather you have been through much more.

I nread your post and the ants marching is a perfect analogy.