Sunday, September 18, 2005

Encounters With The Homeless

Like many of you, from time to time I find myself walking through the city, from a large metropolis like New York to smaller ones like New Haven or Hartford. Spending time in most any city eventually leads me to see many people less fortunate than myself. Oftentimes, I am approached and asked to help them by giving spare change, etc. I know, I know, this is hardly a unique experience.

Why, though, does this make me so uncomfortable? Is it guilt? Maybe. Fear? Possibly….It truly sucks that people are in these situations, and many of us or one or two paychecks away from being thrown into a similar situation. I am by no means rich, but I’m comfortable I suppose. I find myself trying to avoid the encounters altogether, which in turn makes me feel more guilty. I feel fortunate that I have what I do, and that it turn leads to guilt that the person in front of you who has his or her entire wardrobe on his back, and all worldy possessions in a shopping cart. Jeez, am I freakin’ nuts or what?

Worse, part of me feels doubtful that some of these panhandlers are really being honest about their situation. Horrible, I know, but I’m just being honest. I only say this since I’ve found literal examples of this up close. Once a relatively healthy looking young man approached me while I was waiting for a bus. His clothes were clean, and in good shape, so “homeless” was the last thing I thought of as he began to speak. Then he proceeds to tell me, “Excuse me, sir, but the homeless shelter won’t let me in tonight until I give them $5.” Huh? Since when do shelters have a cover charge? Was there a band that night? I immediately activated my brain macro – I think it uses Shift-Ctrl-F8 – which is coded to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any change.” This was actually true, but the brain macro kicked in automatically anyway. I have never heard of a shelter asking for donations form those who would be actually using it, so I didn’t feel too guilty here. Honestly, if you’re going to panhandle, go for it, but at least don’t insult the intelligence of the potential donor (panhandlee?) with such a ridiculous cover story! The fact that there are scammers out there just compounds the issue in my mind. Will I be forced to ask for homeless credentials before I fork over some change?

People like the guy mentioned above poison it for the people who really are in need. Still the question rattles around in my head, why do I purposely work to avoid encounters with these people? It sucks that I do that! I wonder if fear plays a factor (oh man, I apologize if that reminds you of that stupid TV show). After all, it is generally accepted that a large number of homeless could be mentally ill. While this alone is a travesty in the richest country on Earth, it remains a fact. What if one of them gets violent, and smacks me in the head? Don’t laugh, I have actually seen panhandlers verbally dress down people who gave them money for not giving them enough! Which guilt trips them into giving more. “Here, take this $20 and don’t hurt me!” Unbelievable. So it’s not too much of a stretch to assume someone might take it to the next level. In this case I think of folks who are veterans, who probably have some hand-to-hand combat training…….and dammit if my mind isn’t running to some far away places now. The overwhelming majority, however, are very thankful, and express gratitude. So, my Avoid-At-All-Costs strategy protects me here against the occasional bad reaction, but is mostly based on things that could happen, but likely won’t.

My wife, who is 1000% more charitable than I, took it to another level recently when she signed up to provide bag lunches for the local shelter. She went and bought all of the food, and put together the most incredible bag lunches I’ve ever seen. I mean, I put all 15 of them into a laundry basket and practically needed a hand truck to get them into my car. These things were loaded. All she asked of me was that I do the legwork and deliver them. Easy enough. I drove to the shelter, and had to be buzzed in. As I brought in the basket, I was greeted warmly by the volunteers, and was directed to the large refrigerator. Several of the people who would be spending the evening there were gathered at the table, having dinner, and all were extremely grateful. This is where I felt like I was taking way too much credit, since all I did was deliver. That would be like falling all over the guy at the 7-11 when he sells you a winning lottery ticket – he was just the delivery mechanism, and had very little to do with you winning. Still, while there I felt uneasy, partially for being there to take credit for my wife’s good deed. Sort of like guilt-by-association, but in a good way. For reasons I still can’t figure, I really couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Writing about this topic provides a bit of a catharsis, and some self awareness. I think I am an optimist at heart, and feel like things such as homelessness just can’t happen to me. This isn’t based on any reality, just a self harbored delusion. I tend to try to avoid conflict wherever possible, and I think avoiding these situations is just another way of denying that the problem exists. Man, is that pathetic. I have absolutely no problem donating things anonymously, such as clothes, money or toys, and I’m a sucker for any televised plea for assistance. One night I found myself sucked in to a 30 minute commercial for a children’s cancer center, and within 20 minutes I had us locked into a monthly donation, which we are still paying out. (I defy anyone with a pulse to watch what I saw and not take action). I guess removing the actual victim from the equation somehow makes it easier. As I said, pathetic.

I’m curious, what do all of you do when confronted with the ugly realities of the real world, such as homelessness? I wonder if there are others who feel as I do, or if I am simply an idiot!
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