If you read this blog you know that I spend most of my time on the streets of Philly. Comes with the job. Sometimes I feel as if there isn’t one street in the whole city I haven’t been up and down at least twice. And everywhere I go, I run into panhandlers.
Years ago I was of a mind to ignore them, asI was told by … well, everyone. The reason was: When you give a street person money it only serves to keep him or her in his or her present station in life. It’s not only not a good idea – it’s the worst thing you can do for him or her. I never questioned this great urban principle, as I’m sure some of you have also just blindly accepted it since the day your parents hurried you past your first encounter with one of these poor souls on your way from the parking lot to the zoo.
“Who is that man, Dad? Why is he so sad?”
“He’s poor, Bobby. He wants us to give him money.”
“Oh, just spare change.”
“I got a quarter. I could –”
“No! No! That’s the worst thing you can do for him!”
It took me fifty years before I revisited that moment from my childhood and got to thinking about this sacred tenant, which seemed to run counter to everything Jesus said about giving to the poor. And I couldn’t for the life of me find any reasoning behind that reason I had been hearing my whole life.
Okay. I’m walking down Broad Street and I pass a man with a sign: “Hungry. Lost my job. Bless you!” I do what they tell me to do: pass him by and do not give him a dollar. The man behind me also passes by and does not give the man a dollar. Three more people do not give the man a dollar. The man does not have five dollars in his pocket.
Now, ask yourself: Do you know anyone in the world who would be better off without five dollars in his pocket than with five dollars in his pocket? Of course not – OH! You mean that guy at Broad and Sansom with the cardboard sign? Oh, he’ll just piss it away on drugs or booze!
Of course there’s the argument that if you give these people money they won’t go to the homeless shelters set up for them and get the real help they need.
The city’s broke. The state’s broke. The whole damn country is broke! And you, my tight fisted friend, like most of us, are probably three pay checks away from standing right next to this poor bastard, asking him if you can borrow his Sharpie.
We’re either all in this together or we’re not. There’s been an awful lot of talk these days about class warfare and it’s all about the haves and the have-nots — the Republicans and the Democrats, the Wall Street Occupiers and the Tea Party but it goes deeper than that. We all do it, all the time. We can’t help ourselves. It’s what got us this far. The human mind doesn’t so much think as process. It merely compares one thing against another. Like the computer, upon which it is based, it uses the simple binary system: Zero or one. Yes or no.
When you see a homeless person on the street you immediately compare that person to yourself. Why? Because your mind has just been confronted with two things, you and him, and it must compare these two things.
Every living organism on the planet is obsessed with its own survival and the binary system feeds right into the survival instinct.
“Hey dude, you’re like bogarting all the best berry bushes. Mind if I – Okay, big fella. I’ll just pick berries over that ways a bit.”
Fight or flight.
“Gee, these berries taste kinda funny. Should I swallow or spit them out?”
Eat or spit out.
But survival is all about the present. The immediate. The here-and- now. It’s not fight or flight and … while I’m at it, reflect.
And there’s the rub. When you compare yourself to the homeless man you don’t start at the beginning: two clean slates and then methodically list the hereditary factors and seminal events in each life leading up to the diverse resulting situations now facing you. When your mind is in this comparison mode it is also in survival mode, no matter how removed or abstract the situation. It says to itself: “Well, if I was homeless, I would do this, and then I would do that, and then I – ” But can you judge another man’s life by what you would have done differently? You, the fully formed “today you,” somehow transported back in time into his life? It’s presumptuous to compare the “today you” to the “yesterday him” – and, at the very least, sinful to judge the today him against the today you.
Hey, if you don’t want to give the poor slob a dollar, don’t. I got no problem with that. But if you don’t give him a dollar because you think you know what he’s going to spend it on?
Shame on you!
When I give a dollar to someone on the street I assume that he or she will buy whatever he or she needs at that moment – good or bad. That’s what I do with my money. No one tells me what to spend my money on. And if they tried to I’d …
Yesterday I saw some bleeding heart buying a hot dog for a man who was obviously down on his luck and asking passers by for spare change. I wanted to take that soggy sausage and stick it up his self-righteous ass.
Look, drop a quarter in his Styrofoam cup or don’t, by but for Christ’s sake don’t SHOP for him! He knows what he needs. Good or bad, he knows what he needs.
I guess it all comes down to respect and dignity. And there’s more dignity in spending whatever he collects in that cup at the end of the day on booze or drugs … whatever the hell he wants … than you, unilaterally deciding what’s best for him.