Wednesday, October 08, 2014

I need help figuring out how to help those who need help

Has this ever happened to you?
You're in your car, on your way home from work. You stop at a light and see someone on the side of the road. They look kind of disheveled, with a pitiful look on their face and carrying a chunk of cardboard with a hastily scrawled message on it. It might be a short summary of their predicament, detailing a particular tale of woe or it might just say something succinct like "PLEASE HELP". Either way, they want you to give them some money.
You like to think of yourself as a good person who will help someone in need. But on the other hand, you don't want to enable someone who might be looking to pay for some bad habits. On top of that, there's a sliver of indignation in the back of your mind: you just put in at least eight hours of work, goddamnit. You don't necessarily feel good about that last part but it's there. You wish that you didn't have any cash on you so you could just say, "Sorry, I don't have anything to give you" without lying but you actually have two bucks that were sitting on the kitchen counter that you shoved in your pocket when you grabbed your keys.
As you sit there, agonizing over how to properly handle this dilemma, already resenting this person for even putting you in this situation in the first place, the panhandler folds their cardboard sign, walks to a nearby parking lot and proceeds to get into a car that is nicer than yours where they count the wads of cash they've accumulated over the last few hours.
Has this ever happened to you? It happened to this guy...

I don't know about you but I see panhandlers every single day. They don't always hit me up but they're out there all the time, not much more than an arm's length away at multiple intersections I pass through to and from work. A lot of people believe that this is exactly what happens every time you give money to a panhandler, that it's all a huge scam. And if they're not banking wads of cash, they're buying drugs and you're inadvertently-yet-directly contributing to crime. The good person in me (small as he may be) wants to say, "No, that can't possibly be the case. Sure, it might happen once or twice but times are hard and lots of people are really struggling, so in the grand scheme of things, I guess it's all right." Well, I'm not completely wrong... just about 80%,
"According to the Homeless Alliance only about 20% of panhandlers are actually homeless." - Dana Hertneky, News 9, Oklahoma City
Well, shit. I guess at my most cynical, I suspected that was the case. But even then, I kinda hoped I was wrong. Now I know better, so that's something at least. But what are we supposed to do about it?
Well, if you live in Oklahoma City, where this took place, you can get vouchers to hand out instead of money. The vouchers have shelter info, a map of where they are and a pre-paid bus ticket to get there.
I don't live in Oklahoma City and we don't have that here. What we have is a page Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's web site that says:

What should I do when I see a person with a sign on the corner asking for help?
That is really a personal choice based on your own comfort level and beliefs.
Some people:
  • Give them fast food gift certificates or a snack
  • Choose to donate to an organization(s) that helps homeless people
  • Give them money
  • Ignore them
  • Direct them to a service provider/organization
No kidding. Wow. In other words, other than a sadly validated opinion of how shitty people can be, I'm pretty much back (still?) at square one.

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