Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Last month, blogger Carmi Levy wrote an article about homelessness that struck a chord. Carmi is a Canadian journalist & 'tech-y' guy and all-around gentleman... basically the anti-thesis of me. I'm far from Canadian. Anyway, he posits that we should all look out for the homeless and destitute, since any of us could wind up saturated in our own piss, talking to buildings and extending our nicotine-stained hand out to passers by to eke out a living.

In response to his post, I wrote:

...Yeah. We're all a lawsuit/bender/divorce away from being indigent or destitute, but I think most of us have the capacity, resourcefulness and will to avoid such a fate...

Sure, it could be any of us, but I don't find myself to be all that charitible to neighborhood cadgers anymore. This might be due to the fact that I live in an area with a high panhandler to regular person ratio.

Here's a historical glimpse of such characters:

A fifty-some year old guy who for a span of three or four years would approach people in front of a convenience store, asking for money "out of desperation." How long can one be 'desperate'? I think after three or four days it ceases to be desperation and becomes a flat-out nuisance.

A thirty year-old bearded hippie who spent a couple of summers rustling up some change to catch a bus - at the same stop, for hours on end.

The short pigeon toed dude with the fake "shakes" and the plaintive f*cking expression on his face. He'd waddle back and forth in front of the Blockbuster Video store looking like he was about to cry. This was his post for a couple of years.

The grizzled 'Vietnam Vet' guy who'd sarcastically respond "God Bless America," whenever you'd pat the pockets and shake your head as you walked by.

Then there's the 'ran out of gas' routine... That's a winner. F*ck you. Especially when I'm paying 3.02 a gallon to keep my rusty piece of sh*t on the road...

Yeah, it's enough to make anybody calloused. In a way, though, Carmi's right. It could be any of us. A few months ago I started running into an old acquaintance of mine named John. I hadn't seen this guy in about eight or nine years. He used to be normal. At least normal enough to bag one of my old female friends back in the day. Now he starts appearing out of the blue and chats me up for ten painful minutes with some kind of incoherent babble. I don't like to talk to regular people for half as long. As f*cked up as he sounded, he starts rattling off stuff about people we knew and we parted off with a 'nice to see you.'

A couple weeks later I run into him again, looking a little messy. Now I'm thinking, "Man, what kind of f*cking drugs did this guy start taking?" as he goes on and on about the same sh*t as our last encounter. I kind of tugged at my collar and herded the family along and gave him the 'nice to see you, again.'

One or two days go by and here he comes again, looking far more deteriorated and disheveled. He introduces me to some teenage kid he refers to as his friend. As I try to make my getaway with my dog, mother-f*cker hits me up for a "couple of bucks to get some drinks with the ladies."

I gave him the "bunt sign" (patting pockets to indicate lack of monetary content) and rushed off, as he shouted a couple of "Aw... Come on's."

Did I feel like an a**hole for not helping him out? Maybe just a little. I kept thinking that if I really wanted to help him out, I'd give him a ride to the local Bry Lin Treatment Center next time i saw him, but giving out a couple of quarters everytime I see him or any of those other 'destitute' f*ckers on the street is bull sh*t.

I take care of my more resourceful vagrants by leaving out my empty returnable bottles and cans on garbage day. The ill feeling I got standing behind a fat housewife or houseband with 73 empty diet pop cans at the supermarket just wasn't worth the $1.55 I'd garner on an average load. I also 'give at the office' with the United Way and any other legit charity I deem worthy.

I pose this question. At what point should I toss out a quarter? Am I just a cheap bastard or does anybody else get annoyed in this situations. Does it, in fact, make me a heartless a**hole?
As much as I hate to say it... John, next time I see yo' ass, I'm probably crossing the street. You need a little more help than I'd be able to give with $0.73. I hope you find it.


Pickalish said...

I got sumthin' to say.

A few weeks ago, on the busiest intersection in town, there appeared a couple. This couple had a dog. A very plump, healthy looking dog. The couple was...eh, not so healthy looking.

He was the epitomy of "goth"...and trust me, around here, "goth" gets noticed. 8 inche spikes bleached white, and shaped into a mohawk, leather and chains, black makeup, you name it. It didn't phase me, but I did notice him. You couldn't help it.

Fast forward 2 weeks. I'm in Hastings, buying movies and CD's. I get in line to pay, and who should I see? Mr. Mohawk standing in front of me. He had 3 Playstation games he was BUYING with cash. $20's to be precise. Now, if it had been any other dude, I wouldn't have paid attention. But this guy stuck out like a sore thumb. Talk about PISS ME OFF. Here he's been standing on the corner for weeks on end, raking in the cash to pay for playstation games. "Stranded, need gas money" my ass.

I know there are many who have legitimate claim to the desperation you mentioned. Yet, I have serious reservations about how that devestation came about. I'm skeptical at best.

Suzanne said...

I spent the summer of 86 in San Fran attending a training program in which one of my classmates was apparently a recovered speed addict. He told us a few stories of how much money he used to make when he was living on the streets, panhandling. It was a stunning amount--a lot more than I'd made at most of my jobs!

That stuck with me, ever since, and I rarely, if ever, give change to anyone. I've worked almost exclusively for nonprofits and continue to donate my time and money to orgs that are trying to help the people who want and need it. I work hard for every dime, and do not believe random handouts help anyone.

I ignore the sign-holders on the intersection corners and when someone asks if I can spare any change, I look them right in the eye and say "Not today. Sorry." I don't think this makes me a bad person.

I sometimes daydream about answering, "No, I can't (or don't, depending on how the question is phrased). Can you?" and holding out my hand. But, I've never had the guts to actually say it.

Jacques Roux said...

Nope, not a friggin' dime to these leeches on society. Well, that may be a bit harsh, becuase I do, from time to time, dole out a little of the street-dole. But I think that's mostly to appease my quasi-sense of guilt at making good money and blowing it on booze and hookers. I just can't get rid of that Protestant work ethic/Catholic guilt thing.

Regardless, I realize there are folks who have had their fair share (or more) of hard times/bad luck/stupid choices. But I just can't seem to be bothered. Life's tough, nobody promised me f*#king rose garden, and I'll be damned if I'm going to try and save the world for the street dwellers, when they can't be bothered show any more initiative than to hang out all day looking for handouts.

I do, however, find it incredibly ironic and a bit sad to see the largest contingent camping on the lawn outside of the county courthouse. Talk about a blatant demonstration between the have's and the have-not's. But hey, at least we're not rounding them up and giving them one way boxcar rides to someplace "warm."

Sereena X said...

...for a span of three or four years would approach people in front of a convenience store, asking for money "out of desperation." How long can one be 'desperate'? I think after three or four days it ceases to be desperation and becomes a flat-out nuisance.

I love this. Prego, you're always so insightful.

John Sadowski said...

The 'ran out of gas' one is pretty funny. Do they really fool anybody? Once a couple was doing that routine by the dorms I was living in, going on about how they needed money to get home to feed their baby. The lady was holding a a 'baby' that upon closer inspection was obviously a doll wrapped in a blanket :P

Anonymous said...

Once I was young, idealistic, and more sympathetic toward those begging for money on the street. Even occasinally handed some over.

Now, I am old, cynical, and working in downtown Chiago where panhandling is its own mini-industry and economy (literally: they even "sell" their own magazine, called "Streetwise").

I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people who are apparently "destitute," "homeless" and needing to beg on the sidewalk have made a conscious choice to live this way, for various reasons. In fact here in the Loop, I swear they work actual "shifts" and stake out their own "territories" with regular "customers".

With the wealth of public, private, and religious assistance available to those truly down on their luck, along with the never ending flood of help wanted ads for entry level service/etc. jobs (which immigrants who can barely speak English are willing to take, but not the homeless Americans sleeping on the streets) -- I don't see why asking people for spare change is really a "necessary" solution for anyone for any significant length of time...

So, I walk by. Same people, same places, every day, every month, every year. It is a bit sad. And a bit frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Make that Chicago. Duh.

And I forgot to mention that the one thing I CANNOT accept is seeing a "homeless" person with a dog, as is the case with so many of those roaming bands of young "gypsies" these days.

Simply not acceptable and not right.

Even though there are already way too many laws, there should be one against that.

Carrie said...

A lot of the time they make more then me.

The one that I see the most that is homeless, never asks for money.

I have bought food for people before but I will not give money.

John Sadowski said...

Yeah Stephen, it really is out of control in Chicago downtown. Part of the reason I quit smoking is because if you are walking down the street with a cigarette, you literally cannot walk half a block without someone trying to bum a smoke. And if you say no they will always ask for "ends" — the rest of yours. :P

Say no again, and they will ask for a little change. By now you're best buddies and they'll chat with you all the way down the street.

Sereena X said...

Stephen, those are usually street dogs that pretty much adopt the homeless person. They can make a pretty good team, because they give each other support, company, and protection. If the person is truly homeless, what you're seeing is a nomadic experience, not exactly a pampered lifestyle, but a stray dog is usually better off with a homeless person who cares about him, than alone.

Atul said...

I thought of what to tell panhandlers now... Tell them "I run into 20 people like you every day and I don't know who really needs money and who doesn't. If I gave each of you a dollar, I would spend $600 a month and that's a large part of my living expenses. So, I can afford to give each of you 3 cents. Is that alright?"

Anonymous said...

I suppose you're right, Ms. X... just sometimes it seems like they're "using" the cute dog as a ploy to make you feel even more sympathy and more likely to hand over the cash... but maybe that's my old man cynicism kicking in...

Joe said...

One time when we lived in Seattle, this young, patchouli-scented couple was sitting outside of the our neighborhood Safeway with their dog, asking for money to buy him and themselves food. My wife and I went in and bought them a thing of Dog Chow. When we tried to give it to them, they said, "Oh, no. See, we only give him organic."

Nothing beats the New York subway, though. You can't get three stops without five people walking through the car, reassuring you at the top of their lungs that they hate to disturb you, but circumstances have forced them to screech for change.

I saw one couple three or four times over the span of six months, using the exact same story: that their daughter had died in a fire and they needed money for her burial. They offered to provide the number of the coroner for anyone who doubted the veracity of their claim. That's a long time for a body to hang out at the morgue.

I'd love to say, Prego, that you're wrong and that these people are all victims. But there are many of them just working the system for everything they can get. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool "Sorry, can't help you" guy.

the beige one said...

Seattle has its own version of Streetwise, known as Real Change, which is written and operated by the homeless, and what they sell goes directly into the pocket of the seller. I don't have a hard time buying the occasional magazine, because the organization is transparent, and the sellers genuine.

Beyond that, I follow my instincts, and rarely do I feel guilty if I turn it down, nor altruistic if I give 'em $.27.

I've grown leery of the trust fund homeless, those kids who come from affluent families but are slumming as homeless or junkies, all the while sporting new tattoos and various other body alterations (those things ain't cheap...how can you afford that, and not a cheap ass meal at Taco Bell?).

And if someone insists on telling me a story about whatever, their chances grow slim; though I know I've been caught off-guard, and I appreciate a novel approach.

Beyond this, it's on a case by case basis; and if I can't, I offer a simple "sorry ma'am/man." I prefer this to an outright ignoring of the person.

Donny B said...

The only time I give money is to street musicians. Scratch that. Talented street musicians. I figure they're at least working for it, and if they're good, then they're contributing some charm and personality to my usual rush through downtown Chicago.

My favorite response is "Sorry, I don't carry cash on me." It's such pretentious bullshit, but it always stumps them without getting a nasty response.

Athlynne said...

I very rarely see homeless people where I live. When I do see one, I usually give him a 20. Maybe not what anyone thinks I should do, but it makes me happy to make someone's day.

keda said...

hmmmm. :) tricky subject.

its easy to generalize, but often wrong.

i do agree with you on many points.. i see professional beggers here every day. as i did in london. and many of them did indeed make a lot more than me.

here you get bands of gypsies with filthy nursing babies sitting in the middle of the road, glue sniffing gangs of young boys and some selling tissues or chewing gum. sadly even though these are the ones i often buy tissues from.. i've realised even their money goes back to a kind of pimp/runner.
it would be impossible to give to them all and as i know the money i would give would be wasted or go to someone else i'm damned if they'll get their stinky mits on my cash. but it is hard when in mid winter you see people walking barefoot behind buses in the snow to keep warm.

sure in blighty or the us its not the same. most people could more effectively ask for help and get it if they only had the nouse.

i agree with beige that the selling of magazines like 'the big issue' is a great step forward. those people really are trying to get themselves out of the rut and its even often a good read. and they are also trying to tackle the larger proplem.

the problem is confused by the inevitable con artists. but then don't we come across them in all walks of life?

it is easier than most people think to find onesself destitute. i know, because as i commented back at carmi's original post i have been there myself.

its not pretty and it's fucking scary.
but luckily i was not drug dependant or suffering from any mental illness. and as i had been through worse before, i had a survival instinct and the belief that i could change things for the better without ever begging for scraps or change.

sadly many many people who find themselves on the street have lost all hope or pride. and along with the addictions and diminished mental capacities they cannot see another way.

so no i don't think its callous to walk on by without giving cash to these people. but i do think if they piss us off so much we should all be more willing to do something a little more constructive whenever we can. like support education, shelters, drug rehabilitation, help out in soup kitchen or by giving advice and finding out how to get these people back into situations where they can find a place to live, get a job and get out of their ruts.

they are not all alcoholics, many start as abused kids running from home. and it'll take more than a few cents to help them off the street. but if we don't do something constructive at the beginning they'll become more of a burden and annoyance as time goes by.
and once they've become addicts to block out the shit world they live in, they'll be blind to the fact that there is any other way.

bottom line and in the big scheme of things, i guess is yes you and i have the recources to pull ourselves out. many don't. can you blame the schizophrenic for his own illness and leave him on the street until he becomes dangerous and murders just because the bloke sitting next to him in the doorway is an immoral fuckwad who wants to make a buck for doing bugger all?

sorry... for my rambling rant :#)

leaving out the bottles and cans is great. we do the same here. and people rummage our communal bins everyday for paper, glass and cans. recycling and helping the homeless in one fell swoop :)

thelyamhound said...

I'm unable to evaluate the matter on anything but a case-by-case basis, and even then my decision is generally an intuitive one (or an economic one--sometimes I don't have any change or cash, sometimes I need to use the change or cash I have, and still other times the change or cash in my pocket is the only money I'm gonna see for a few days).

I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to "find one's self destitute", and I hope to hold on to that ignorance for the remainder of my natural life. I can OBSERVE, however, the way the market punishes not only transgression, but innovation, difference, and minor error. Considering how often I've been willing to help my close friends squander their money and engage in questionable practices, I'm not overly worried as to whether the person to whom I give money, when I do give out money, may or may not be "working the system". If I've got the change, it's often just a matter of how the person comes off.

Like TBO, I'm wary of trust fund urchins, and I agree about the tattoos (hell, if I decided I didn't care about food, rent, clothes, or debt repayment, I'd have more ink than the Dead Sea Scrolls; since I was circumspect enough to make that choice despite my demonstrated adoration of body art, I'm hard-pressed to sympathize with some smelly, jobless street rat with brand new tats); like Donny B, I tend to favor street performers. Other than that, it depends on my mood, my solvency, and other subjective, in-the-moment judgements.

jennypenny said...

You never fail me prego. You always force me to think.

This is a tough subject for me as I have always been very involved with the salvation army and helped develop a homeless shelter here a few years back and saw things really from the inside. I saw the mother who was evicted and had no family to help her.. I saw the man from another province whose apartment burned down and he had no insurance and had just started a new job. I have also seem those that abuse the system and how sick that is.

I guess overall i feel like if there are people who find themselves in trouble and need help there is help out there. There are organizations designed for just that. If there are begging for money on the street they obviously dont want help.. they want pity and to take advantage of the few of us that still care and I dont agree with that at all.

Seems like you have yet another hot button issue here.

Happy weekend!

Dop said...

The other day, I was walking up Michigan Avenue and stumbled across, literally, a man who looked very dirty laying on the sidewalk - or more to the point, reclining up against the building at Water Tower Place. I immediately sized him up as being a vagrant and homeless. And just as immediately, I felt sympathy, as I always do, when I see someone in that situation. "There but for the grace of God go I", I say to myself. After shelling out a little over $15,000 last year for expenses not covered by my insurance company for my surgery, I found that I had to start all back over again. There were times when I was just a paycheck or two away from being that man that I stumbled across.

Or so I thought.

Upon closer inspection of the man laying in the street with outstretched cup for donations, I read the sign he had propped up against himself. It was a cardboard sign, written in black marker, asking for donations to help him out. The last line on the sign read,

"...your helped is appreciated".

And I thought how on earth did he correctly spell the word "appreciated", but misused a first grade word like "help", especially when the word "help" is written so often by those who are in need of it? Every other word on his sign was spelled correctly.

Another block or so up the street was yet another man, assumably homeless, with the word "unfortunate" spelled correctly, and the word "pleese" tacked on at the end. And then I suddenly felt like a fool. And I wondered how many other people who seem to be living on the streets are posers and how many are the real thing.

For me, it is admittedly a short drive to the town of Cynical. I tend to NOT believe more than believe. I am not a pessimist -- I have been fooled just enough times to be more wary. I would never give money to someone on the street anyway, because I have volunteered in shelters before and was told to always donate to a shelter or organization rather than give money to a person on the street. For one thing, you never know how your money is going to be spent (I don't want to unknowingly support someone's alcohol addiction or crack habit). I have actually offered food to people on the street before - sometimes it was accepted graciously, sometimes it was taken without so much as a thank you, and sometimes it was thrown back at me.

In the book, Etiquette for Outlaws, it says to never give money to a panhandler, and when approached and asked for money, one should respond with "not today" rather than "I'm sorry", because the latter is too condescending to those who really ARE homeless and in need. But for those who aren't really authentic (be it a sociology student doing a project, a college kid pulling a prank, or just a lazy person who doesn't want to actually work for a living), a condescending word is just not enough retribution.

~A~ said...

I choose to donate my money and time to organizations than someone on the street. I can't tell you how many service hours I've donated with my Girl Scouts to women shelters. Most of our projects tend to be focused on helping kids who end up in such places because their mother's have dragged them there for a number of reasons.

That's how I ease my heart and mind. If people really need help, if it was me that really needed help, I would be searching out those places that could help me help myself. Not just sit on my ass with a cardboard sign.

I have been know to toss the occasional quarter at the man with the cup on a fishing pole with a sign saying "fishing for beer" because you don't see that kind of honesty much anymore.

I personally find professional or life long beggars not only a burden on humanity but a burden on our humanity. How do I teach my children to be thankful for what they have and compassion for those who have less when they see people who purposely have less because they chose to be in that situation? Not everyone chooses to be "on the street" but I think after a certain amount of time is becomes a choice because there are ways out.

tiff said...

I don't give money to street folk, unless they're doing something for it. I never give to mimes, because I believe all mimes should be sent very very far away.

I do donate to charitable organizations, and I recycle, and I donate vacation days for people who need extended time off but still need pay, and I will drop money for the scouts or poppy sellers.....but not to the random "homeless" person with a sign who's doing nothing but stinking up a street corner.

I can live with my partly hard heart!