Thursday, February 09, 2006

But For The Grace of God

The law school plays host to a handful of homeless men most days, especially once it gets cold. I don’t particularly have a problem with that. They come in to get warm, to use the restroom, maybe to clean up a little. Sometimes they use the computers to surf the internet, or read the newspapers, or just rest and talk to the librarians and the library assistants. They stay to themselves for the most part. I’ve never heard of any student every being bothered by any of them in any way, not even the most minor harassment. Sometimes someone will buy them a cup of coffee or give them some food. When the various groups hold get togethers that involve food, they leave whatever doesn’t get eaten sitting out and you often see these men come in after everyone is gone to get a bottle of water and eat whatever delicacies the students and faculty left untouched.

I’ve never once felt the urge to scream “Get a job!” at one of these men, but I feel it deep in my bones almost every time I pass the corner by the Sushi restaurant and the skinny guy with the beard jumps in front of me, shaking his cup, yelling “Hey lady, can’t you spare a little change?”.

But in the past few weeks I’ve had two somewhat more unsettling experiences with panhandlers. In the first instance, I had driven to school and parked my car down the street a short distance. As I was plugging the meter, one of the panhandlers who usually hangs out in front of an abandoned restaurant rushed toward me (which set off my inner alarm to begin with) and started in with his spiel, peppering it liberally with the word “baby”, as though he was somehow going to appeal to me via his radient sexuality or something. He came toward me so fast and got so close that I was essentially trapped between him and my car, which really made my inner alarm scream. So I said “Excuse me” and stepped around him. I didn’t really want to turn my back to him, but I wasn’t sure how else to get out of the situation, so I started walking as fast as I could and he screamed after me, something I couldn’t quite understand, but that clearly carried the message “HOW DARE YOU DENY ME!”. I was so focused on getting out of the situation that it didn’t quite occur to me until I was in the middle of the meeting I’d come in for that I’d just left a very angry panhandler standing next to my car. Now, my car is nothing special, but it’s mine and I depend on it. As soon as the meeting was over, I went to move my car and there he was, leaning up against it. My heart sank. He stood up as I approached and started telling me how he’d “taken care” of my car, “keeping it safe” for me while I was gone and now I owed him. At that point, I went from scared to pissed off. I opened my car door, shut it and locked it and pulled away with the guy still yelling from the sidewalk to tell the world what a bitch I am. In the second instance, I went to a fast food restaurant to pick up food. As I was standing in line, I watched a man approach the person whose order was just being taken. He stood patiently to the side until the cashier rang up the order and handed the customer his change. As the cashier turned away to bag the customer’s order, the first man stepped forward and asked for some of the money the guy was in the process of putting back in his wallet. Clearly intimidated, he handed the panhandler a couple of bills. The panhandler stepped oh-so-slightly to the side—conveniently out of view of the counter help—and waited. The guy who’d just been shaken down didn’t say anything to the woman who brought him his food, whether because he didn’t mind being waylaid while getting dinner or because he was too afraid of a potential confrontation with a man who was visibly tweaked out, I couldn’t say. I stepped out of line and approached another employee, who rolled her eyes, but asked the guy to leave. He stayed for a few minutes longer, as if to prove that no one couldn’t tell him nothing, then wandered away.

I still feel somewhat conflicted, philosophically speaking. I understand that drug addiction and mental illness and homelessness and the inability to hold a steady job are a great big, vicious web and that the people who get caught up in it are victims, whether of their illness or of their own bad choices. There are no easy answers and telling a man who feels like he’s dying for his next fix not to take whatever means are available to him to get the resources to obtain that fix is useless. But at the same time, people should be able to go about their business without feeling like they have to run a gauntlet of aggressive beggars in the process. I never, ever give money to panhandlers and it makes me feel vaguely guilty, because although I’ve always had a very tight budget, I’ve always had enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. Over the years, I’ve also managed to accumulate some nice things, even if they aren’t fancy or designer or antique. Why not share with someone who’s obviously down on their luck?

I get so angry when I hear people argue against welfare or in favor of the cap on social security tax with arguments that boil down to “Well, if you’re poor, it’s your own fault, why should I have to bail you out?”, yet here I am, feeling resentment of people for daring to be poor and/or addicted to drugs or alcohol and inconveniencing me. Why is it that I have no problem with the government taxing the wealthy to aid the poor, but I take exception to the individual who dares to ask for aid?

There’s a certain predatory aspect of panhandling that just doesn’t sit right with me and, for me, negates the sympathy I might have had for someone less fortunate. I think the fact that many of these panhandlers are able bodied plays into it as well, though I am, of course, aware that mental illness plays a large role in homelessness. And the fact that I was physically attacked by a panhandler who I politely turned down certainly hasn't given me any reason to doubt that gut feeling.

Here are a few links exploring the issue of panhandling:

The Homeless Guy Blog had some thoughts on this subject back in 2002.

A study on panhandler earning and spending patterns published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a critique of the study.

There are several versions of local news “Investigative Reporter” stories about panhandlers, for what they’re worth. Frankly, I find this kind of reporting to be far too superficial and glib, but taken with a grain – well, a whole mountain, really—of salt, they offer some anecdotal writing on the topic.

I started this entry early this morning. Since then, I also read
this blog entry
via a link on European’s blog and I must admit that it really tugged at my conscience. Although I am no longer particularly religious, my own morality is heavily influenced by Christian ideals. You’ll please note that I did NOT day that my morality is influenced by a Christian church—the disparity between the message of love and forgiveness I see in the Bible and the message of hatred and intolerance and petty attention to ritual over true attention to the betterment of ourselves and our relationship with God and man that I see in church today is the major reason I’ve stopped attending church, despite being raised in an evangelical Christian home. One of the things that I feel is particularly important in life is the Golden Rule, heavily influenced by the words of Jesus when he said “Whatever you do to the least of these...” (This is part of the reason why I’ve come to believe that it’s perfectly okay to expect the wealthy to pay more taxes and to support the poor. From each according to his means, to each according to his need, and all that.) But I must admit that it’s HARD to live your life that way and so very easy to think “Hey, I’ve worked damned hard to get what little I have; why should I share it with someone who can’t be arsed to get a job?”. I’m re-reading The Grapes of Wrath right now and feeling all self-righteous, reading about the terrible treatment of migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl. Am I any better if I harbor this resentment toward the panhandler on the street?


At 9:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to look at the shoes of the panhandlers. I mean, if he's (cause most often it's a dude) sporting some fancy kicks, then I will question:
a) his economic worth,
b) his economic decisions,
c) both.


At 11:14 PM , Blogger European said...

I agree with you on many points. Kudos to you for driving off in your car without giving the guy anything (I'd like to think I'd have the guts to do the same). Ditto for having someone ask the guy in the restaurant to leave.
I'm a big softie when it comes to homeless/helpless/down-on-their-luck people - I almost can't help wanting to help them. (I like this about myself.) But the proverbial buck stops when people get audacious (i.e. standing by the register). This might be because I want to feel generous and Mother-Teresa-ish when I give. It's because I don't want to feel taken in and forced into charity. But it might also have to do with the picture I have of a homeless person: meek and grateful (forever, if possible).
So what I try to tell myself is that 1. I have a lot and I can share.
2. If you're rude/mean/impolite to me, you'll have to hit up someone else.
I'm comfortable with #1, but I don't know if #2 is true. The Jesus quote you talk about nags my heart when I turn my back.
The jury is still out, I guess.

"So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you might have studied, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me." (The Princess Bride)


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