Sunday, October 30, 2016

Give to the homeless, even if it funds their habit

I was with some friends downtown and a rather aggressive homeless man came up and was asking for money. Well, he was pretty much insisting we give him money (I didn't have any MadHousers* flyers on me, dammit). Most of us don't carry much cash these days, in a world where even street vendors take cards, thus most of us had nothing to give. I can't remember the last time I even had any cash in my hands.

One guy started to dig in his pockets for change and one woman started to dig in her purse for some cash. The homeless man became impatient and said, "Come on, man. I need some money. I don't got nothin. Gimme some money."

"Hold on, I'm getting it for you!" the guy said back. It was awkward, but it's not actually that uncommon downtown, especially in touristy spots where we were. The guy gave him some change and the woman gave him a few bills and we went on our way.

Oddly, not long before this whole exchange, we had been talking about whether or not we give money to the homeless when we have it (I pimped out MadHousers*, of course). I often do on the rare occasion when I actually have cash or a little change. If I'm in a position to do so, I may go buy some food on my card and give it to them. The thought of anyone having to eat out of a trashcan, or perhaps not at all, breaks my heart, especially knowing what an abundance we have here. We throw away more than some people eat in a week.

Another guy in the group said, "I give them food a lot because I always pack myself a lunch and bring snacks when I come downtown because I don't want to spend money on the overpriced food here."

"That's very nice of you," I said.

He continued, "That helps them eat something decent and I don't have to worry about them using my money to support some habit." 

I paused for a second and thought about whether I should say this or not since this was a new group of people I did not know well at all, but I decided to go ahead. I can't very well say I advocate for the homeless without actually advocating for the homeless in the smallest way possible.

"I don't give a shit what they use it for," I said, "If I were in their situation, I'd probably be drunk or high all the time just to cope. You never know what they're going to use it for."

I'm not sure that my implication that it's not up to you to decide how they use money, that you give them money out of compassion and trust they'll do with it whatever they need, but the group basically agreed that they would probably also be drunk or high all the time if they were in that situation. The conversation then quickly faded to something else.

It got me thinking about people's misconceptions of the homeless...that they're all drunks, that they're all drug addicts, that they probably ended up on the street because they were drunks and drug addicts (rather than the other way around), that you can't really trust them with "your" money, which actually ceases to be YOUR money the moment it changes hands. 

It also got me thinking of conditional compassion. When you say you don't want them to use your money to fund a habit, what you're really saying is, "I'll give you money if you use it the way I want you to." That is not very compassionate. It's pretty darn judgmental. You give homeless people money because you want to help them, not so you can claim partial ownership over their behavior. What they do with it is not up to you. It's great if you give them food, but do it because you want them to eat, not because you don't trust them with money!

It also got me thinking about society's misconceptions of drug addiction. Some homeless folks do have drug or alcohol problems, but it's not up to us to fix them with spare change. When you give homeless people money, it's not like they have the ability to squirrel it away somewhere in hopes of saving enough to get into a rehab center. They are just trying to survive the day. If that survival includes drugs, so be it. IT'S. NOT. YOUR. CALL.

Before you accuse me of supporting drug proliferation, consider this simple fact: Addiction is a disease. You may have chosen to do drugs the first time or even the first couple of times, which is why people think it's always a choice and see addicts as shameful criminals with no willpower rather than as sick people, but after you've done them, you're already in. Your body NEEDS those drugs or that alcohol. It's not a simple solution of mind over matter.

How many people do you know, who aren't dealing with the constant misery and struggle of homelessness, who are or have been on drugs or alcohol and literally cannot stop without serious medical intervention? It's also worth mentioning that without an emotional support system, even with serious medical intervention, most drug addicts return to their habits. What emotional support system do homeless people have? Most people treat them like vermin. 

I didn't say all of this at the time. I wish I could have, but then again, I'm usually much better on the page than in person. I don't know if my implication that it's none of your business what they do with "your" money made even a slight a difference, but, hopefully, this post will. Please think of what I've written the next time you deal with a homeless person. Keep in mind, this is a PERSON you're talking to! Not a thing, not a demon, not a crook, not someone who just needs to work harder, not someone who's out to get you, not some loser with no willpower, not likely someone who is pretending to be homeless just to deceive you into granting them the handsome reward of the 67¢ you got at the drive thru and just tossed into the bottom of your purse because were too lazy to put it away. Most likely it's a person who met some unfortunate circumstances in life the drove them to the streets and is now doing whatever they can to survive the day, something most of us never have or never will have to experience. So, be compassionate, be empathetic, be kind and remember, you don't get to dictate others' lives just because you helped them.

*MadHousers, Inc. is an Atlanta-based 501c3 non-profit corporation engaged in charitable work, research and education. They provide individual, free-standing shelters for homeless individuals and families regardless of race, creed, national origin, gender, religion, or age. Please consider donating. All proceeds go DIRECTLY to supplies for shelter building. No one collects a salary. All administrative services are provided by volunteers. 
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