I have lived in very high panhandling zones, but I admit to not understanding the beef with it. If there are crimes of subsistence (squatting, stealing food) the problem is hunger and lack of shelter — and those are not problems I face, but problems the homeless face. If the panhandlers harass, then the problem is harassment; if the panhandlers are assaultive, the problem is assault – and so on. Assault and harassment (etc.) are the problems I experience personally, and I can usually avoid them or remedy them easily. I am not sure how panhandling itself is a problem. So far as I can tell, no one forces passersby to donate, but if they did, see “harassment”.
So are we talking about a problem I have? Or am I trying to solve the problems faced by the homeless? If the problem I have is homelessness generally, or drug abuse generally, then I can act on the system in ways I think will resolve those issues. Homelessness and drug abuse in specific individuals, and particular classes of people, are problems individual persons within those groups face.
I feel a personal conviction to help people deal with their problems, if they want to accept my help and want to change their lives. But if I have a problem with the way individual homeless people are managing their homelessness, or the way addicted people are handling their substance use, that is bullshit.
Me, in my comfy apartment, indulging in my own vices of choice, backseat driving a person who knows far better than I do what the consequences of those choices will be. I imagine it might make a homeless person feel the way I do when my mother chides me for blowing as much money as I do on high-speed internet when my taxes have provided me with a public library card at no charge. My mother believes that you don’t need web access, for example, to get a job that pays a living wage — that you can accomplish this by walking in off the street, using a pencil to complete a paper job application, and impressing the business owner with your earnest assertion that “any job I don’t know how to do, I can learn.” The last time this got her a job was 1982, and she worked there until her rotator cuffs gave out and they fired her, almost three decades later.
I adore Maman, but she does not understand my lived experience. She does not trust me to know what the fuck I am talking about when I try to explain. She does not accept that I know my needs and resources better than she does. But most importantly, she does not know that it is technically none of her goddamned business, and that she has no right to judge me. She can indulge in freestyle social criticism all she wants, but she has no right to demand an explanation from me. It is operating on incomplete data to make assumptions about my choices and then judge me based on those assumptions. (It’s also rude as hell, but that is a matter of manners, not morals.)
Analogy always fails in the end, but to take this a step further: what if I ask her for money? Must I spend it according to her terms? The answer is that it depends on the agreement. She might be more likely to lend me money if I justify need and swear that I have no other money to use to that end. But say she were to give me money — out of the kindness of her heart, because it is my birthday, or whatever. Do I have to spend it the way she wants me to? Can I buy gin with it, even if my mother deplores alcohol? Can I use it to pay for an abortion, even if my mother believes it is murder? Is it my money, after she gives it to me, or is it still hers?
Again let me point out that she was not compelled in any way to throw me cash. Do I get to use it as I please, or not?
You can care about a person and still have unreasonable expectations and poor personal boundaries, of course, but let’s be honest: most of us in these United States were raised with the Puritan heritage of societal judgment of others rather than a sense of respect for others. Respecting others does not mean assuming they have the ability and the inclination to make perfect choices or even “good enough” choices; it only means that you don’t get to judge or decide for others, just as they don’t get to judge or decide for you. I’ve been asked, “How would you feel if you gave a buck to a guy who used it to buy drugs and died of an overdose? Or would you just wash your hands of him and say it’s not your responsibility, that you’re not your brother’s keeper?”
First, I assure you that I feel sad. People die of society’s choices and treatment all the time, and their own personal choices and behavior. I’m sad for middle class functional alcoholics who did their best to keep up with the Joneses as they were taught. I’m sad for rich old reptiles forever chasing money, because they loved their Daddies and their Daddies loved the dollar. I’m sad for desperate Mormon housewives whose lips would never touch liquor but who have huge benzo addictions to match their ulcers. I’m sad for everyone who hurts. Am I their keeper, too? I feel sad that people die of neglect, of diseases caused and worsened by drugs of abuse, and by exposure to the elements. Depriving them of charity is not preventing their death by overdose, any more than my not buying them a cheeseburger is preventing their death by arteriosclerosis.
Don’t think I’m blind to the fallout in society. But if a person gets all het up by homeless people scrounging for change and charity, making the streets dirty, and daring to expose us Good Folk to their addiction…but doesn’t get the same “we must make good choices for them since they cannot be trusted to make the choices we want them to make on their own” feelings about other groups harming society and the world at large (middle class consumption filling landfills, carnivores and coal and consumerism destroying the environment, the One Percenters living off slavery, the government bleeding dry the populace to accrue wealth and power to those who already have an excess – on and on)… then there is a disproportionate attention and blame given to a vulnerable population who is arguably the least able and/or resourced to change things — including themselves.
If far more harm is done by people who have the bottom layers of Maslow’s pyramid squared away, why is so much ire disproportionately directed away from the wealthy, the secure, the educated, the people with enough power and influence to do real harm? You can despise all those groups, but who is most likely to suffer? The homeless. If you need to change something, change the system. If you don’t feel the urge to give, don’t. It’s that easy. But if you are going to judge someone’s personal choices (or unpleasant necessities), maybe start with people who harm others, people acting from greed rather than need, people who are in a position to fight back.
Because homeless people get addicted for the same reasons other people do: looking for escape from fear and burdens; looking to self-medicate pain; looking to relieve stress; looking to self-medicate mental illness (diagnosed or undiagnosed); looking to feel good for one goddamn hour for a change. So let’s not judge them for having the same problems we do (to a much greater degree) or for handling it in much the same way. That includes panhandling – and if you think people with resources don’t panhandle, allow me to introduce you to GoFundMe and Indiegogo and other crowdsourcing applications.
From people who are irritated by panhandlers, what I hear is that they are disturbed by the subsection of panhandlers who (a) seem to have other alternatives and/or (b) make any degree of money at it. It offends their sense of rightness.
I am open to hearing more about the problems people have with panhandling. It’s just been my experience that the root arguments, once the superficial BS has been lovingly peeled away, amount to, “It’s not fair that I have to work when all they have to do is beg. I have to work, so they should have to work.” For it was written, by Coolio and by a disputed author in the second epistle to the Thessalonians: “(T)his we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” It’s one of the classic Christian arguments against welfare of any kind, since pauperism and penury were considered to be immoral states and poor people were not in a state of grace. When social workers fought to decriminalize destitution, many Christians disagreed. But if trying to subsist as a homeless person is made illegal again, how are they to live?
Losing your home (if you ever had one) does not give you a heart of gold, a farmer’s work ethic, and Lifetime Network backstory of being a plucky saint who had a run of bad luck.
The individuals that I have met who were physically able but who declined opportunities for work included those who were confident in their panhandling skills but terrified of meeting “normal” demands to perform. After having to live like an animal (and being treated like a stray dog by society,) not everyone has the confidence and dignity to step outside the place they feel a degree of confidence or mastery. Somehow we accept that truth if the story is an ugly duckling who learns she is foreign royalty — however will I learn the ways of my betters? — but we reject it when a person who has no place to shower and no appropriate clothing and no goddamned toothbrush is scared (or angered) by the prospect of trying to fit in with people who sneered at her on the street the day before. The tasks of passing for normal once you have endured more than a couple of weeks of having to shit and sleep in full sight of strangers can be daunting. Some people would rather stick with what they know instead of further damaging their shredded self-esteem. Some folks still have a defiant bravado, still have a lot of “fuck you” left in them — a lot don’t.
The experience of homelessness is one of invisibility and humiliation and danger, and the longer the trauma goes on, the harder it is to leave the war zone. Most of the homeless people I’ve known have been assaulted on multiple occasions, had to steal or prostitute themselves for money, have suffered horrible intestinal and UT infections due to eating spoiled food and having no reliable hygiene, and had permanent losses in health or cognitive ability due to malnutrition, dehydration, and lack of treatment for other conditions including hypertension and thyroid imbalance. Even those with no history of mental illness suffer depression, acute stress disorder, and PTSD secondary to living on the street. Not to mention esteem and identity issues secondary to having been ridiculed and scorned and beaten and ignored. This taught them how to regard themselves. I can’t blame them for not feeling able, and I can’t blame them for occasionally saying “fuck you” — if you’ve learned to fight the hand that beats you, you’ll occasionally bite the hand that is trying to feed you.
(And some folks never entered the workforce. If you have problems with attention and are not bright enough to compensate, you won’t be able to hold down the sort of boring and repetitive job that would get you into the workforce. If you have a sensory disorder and are not bright enough to compensate, you will not be able to tolerate the low-level noisy / hot / smelly / nasty-textured demands of low-level jobs that would provide security. If you are a kid who is kicked out as a minor for being gay / pregnant / whatever, chances are good you will develop a history of drug use and/or misdemeanor arrests before you are even legally old enough to work — so good luck getting into Harvard, or whatever else it takes to get a job these days.)
But back to our feelings about the role of substance use and addiction in homelessness. Some folks have substance use habits that make them homeless; others pick it up after life changes that couldn’t be handled. But we’re not talking about how the homeless feel about drugs, or whether they are entitled to experience the same stages of change with regard to addiction and recovery that people with homes and jobs are entitled to. I’m talking about people having opinions about drug use in other people — specifically, homeless people.
I wish I could create a flow chart to help people parse out how they actually feel about substance abuse and people with addictions, since again, the feelings that come out are usually strong, but you have to wade through All The Disclaimers; the layers of How I Think I Should Feel; and the list of Societally Approved Acknowledgements Because Everyone Has Problems I’m Sure.
Whatever. Once you get past the lawyer’s page, some of the assertively expressed opinions I’ve heard again and again include:
“Sure, I drink like a fish – but I work for my money and buy my own booze, so I don’t have a problem.” (Functional addiction is okay, but if I became homeless, I’d magically become a teetotaler.)
“Sure, I use prescription medication to cope – probably a little too much – but I have a really hard job and all these personal issues. My meds keep me going. But I take only prescribed medication under a doctor’s supervision – I don’t do street drugs.” (Because you have worries, but homeless people have no worries. They also don’t have full access to insurance, to authorized and empathetic prescribers, and to quality mental health care. All homeless people are, one incorrectly assumes, eligible for Medicaid, and therefore are in possession of a sufficient degree of security and subsistence to be able to engage in insight-oriented treatment, which cannot occur in a traumatizing environment, and which is typically required to get Mommy’s Little Helper – or get into rehab.)
“I don’t blame the homeless for being homeless – but I’m not going to support drug addiction.” (Sure, fine. No one is saying you have to give. Just keep walking. Or if you feel comfortable acknowledging a human being who has addressed you in a non-threatening way, do so.)
“I offered to buy a bum a sandwich and he told me to fuck off. They don’t want food, just drugs.” (Don’t pretend that homeless addicts have never bought a sandwich or a cup of coffee with panhandled cash. But he didn’t ask you for food, he asked you for money. If you don’t want to give money, fine. If you really want to feed the homeless, walk up and offer homeless people food or restaurant vouchers. But if your attempt at charity is conditional, and clearly denies agency to the recipient, particularly in a sneering way – “I would give you money but I don’t believe you can be trusted to spend it properly – i.e., in a way I personally approve” – then you are a patronizing asshole, and patronizing assholes don’t get told to Fuck Off nearly so often as would do them good. Take that candid feedback to heart.)
But the most honest of the statements I hear regularly:
“ They smell horrible.”
“I said no to one and he got mad at me – what the fuck!”
“ They just make me really uncomfortable.”
“I sat next to one on the bus and he had clearly shit himself some time ago – he had that cooked-in dirt all over him — I had to get up and move.”
“That dude was tweaking so hard he had pigeon feathers stuffed in his ears and was talking to people who weren’t there,” (insert other positive or negative symptoms of schizophrenia, et cetera.)
To compare, the most recent chronically homeless client I’ve worked with presented as exactly fitting the profiles mentioned above. A lot of staff hated this person because this person was prone to impulsive aggression, wanted LOTS of drugs RIGHT NOW, had to be coaxed to eat or wash or change clothes, and stood too close when speaking. Just another tweaker. Don’t bother setting up services; you know that person will just walk out and go looking for drugs again.
Knowing the person’s story since birth, from records prior to the initial homelessness and drug abuse, gave me more empathy. Given the person’s drug-induced cognitive impairment, I might know more about TP’s history than TP remembers at this point. TP had come from an ostensibly good home, but one filled with physical and emotional abuse behind closed doors. TP had been raised in a religion that believes there is no such thing as mental illness and that TP only needed prayer to get better. TP got married and had a child — but spouse took child and fled when TPs symptoms got high. TP was left penniless, homeless, depressed and brokenhearted, not trusting psychiatry, impaired by mental illness, and learning to rely on street drugs — but still young and healthy. After being assaulted in a homeless shelter, TP could not abide sleeping in a room full of other people — it couldn’t be safe. This led to isolation on the streets, stealing food, prostitution, jail time, and health problems including STDs galore, Hep C, renal failure from dehydration, and permanent cognitive impairment from being beaten and from living on booze and pills. TP’s life was a direct line from a childhood trauma to the street. But I’d give TP a buck any day. It might go to a sandwich, or it might go for a hit. Either way, it might keep TP from having to steal, or blowing a john. Or getting sneered at by someone who has all the things TP lost.
So. As much as circumstances are against some people at birth, and even those born to much may lose it and fall, there is no child on the playground who dreams of being a homeless addict. There is no young adult who has a broad variety of options and selects homelessness and addiction as the preferred future life to build. There is no mature adult possessed of judicial capacity and under no duress who calmly and thoughtfully declines a life of health and safety in favor of danger, discomfort, and misery.
You may not have compassion for people who are homeless and addicted. You might feel certain that if you had a change in circumstances (due to external situations beyond your control, of course, and not any poor choices of your own) that you would perform better. You might well be correct. But not everyone has your confidence, your training, your health, your mental acuity, and your long history of having done well enough to feel confident you can attain that state once more. Don’t look at all your assets and say, “If I can do it, anyone can!” – you might be blind to how much you have going for you. And you sure as hell have no clue what That Person was up against.