Sunday, March 11, 2007

do we ever really know what time it is?

Emily asked me to share my thoughts about giving money to homeless (or otherwise impoverished) folks when there is a fairly good assumption that it would be going to feed someone's addiction.

Right off, I'd say that if that was the motivating force that kept you (Em, not YOU, bur rather the collective you that is in all of us) from offering spare change, then I'd ask you if you buy gasoline. Because I can't think of a larger collective addiction. And then I might question how else you spend your money. Do you buy clothes that were manufactured in third world countries, whether it Nike or Walmart or even the bananas we import, because you can bet that is off the back of someone else and most certainly feeding corporate addictions to money. Do you truly live sustainably, or do your purchases simply feed addictions out of the range of vision?

Addiction, see, it's a funnybugger. The highbrow kind, cloaked in marketing and media, telling us what we need to feel good, to get a good deal, feeds our collective addiction of production and consumption. Of greed. Money is the drug of choice for many. It might look like a hot guy in a suit, but it's still an addiction.

So it's a little hypocritical to get all flummoxed over that .50 that someone is asking for on the streets.

Now for the moral side of the coin. If you know that your actions will directly contribute to someone else's pain, and I count addiction in this, then it is awfully hard to turn a blind eye and help that person closer to the brink. Sadly I think our uninformed consumption does this all the time (diamonds are popular, yet often farmed in horrific conditions) but I think that offering someone money so they can go buy an eightball does this too.

How do we know that the guy asking for spare change is going to buy drugs? One way is if he told you when you asked why he wanted your money. And if he was to be honest, you could have an honest reaction. Chances are, though, there will be a lie or two involved. A lot has happened to that guy between the time he more closely resembled you and the time it's taken to make it to the streets.

Shame. That's a whopper. Imagine slowly losing everything, whether to addiction or poverty or to a couple of bad turns. Chances are by the time I found myself on the curb I'd have fallen pretty far down the rabbit hole. I'd have a lot of regrets. And I've had a lot of opportunity to be treated like shit. So I am going to want to make it sound as plausible as possible. Money for the bus (that means I am leaving your town soon and that's a good thing for everyone) food (who can argue with an empty belly); or clothes for that job interview (god knows you think I need a job).

I've worked with A LOT of people who've probably asked other people for money. They don't ask me - I think it falls under the premise that you don't shit where you eat. But I've certainly seen a scam or two (or twenty) selling prescription meds for a dollar a pill, making sweet with the older lady to get their hands on her disability check. And probably telling you they need money for the bus so they can go out and get high.

And even with all that, I still give money regularly. I don't walk around with a wad of cash and act like a wannabe Hefner at a strip club, but if I have a couple bucks and someone asks I give it to them. I don't ask what they need it for. Some folks want to tell me, but it isn't my business; I am doing it because they asked, and in the hopes they can take care of themselves. And I have the lucky bonus of extending a bit more - a night in a shelter - a place to go if they want it.

Back in my green years I would pass out my card all the time. I'd even set up a time to meet. I was sure they'd show up. In reality perhaps 1 in 5 actually did. But those one in five meant it. The others, perhaps it was a lie to get some cash. How different is that from the corporate deceit of inflated profit margins and promises of rebates? Free trade and fair wages? Of lower emissions and Made in the USA when only the label gets sewn on here?

Charity is also known as Almsgiving, and wiki defines that as the act of giving money, goods or time to the unfortunate, either directly or by means of a charitable trust or other worthy cause, is described as charity or charitable giving. The poor, particularly widows and orphans, and the sick and disabled, are generally regarded as the proper objects of almsgiving.

I tend to think of charity as a conscious practice within myself. The moment I decide to give money, I give up the right to my attachment to it. If I give to organizations, I do some research. I want to know how much is going to overhead, who their funders are, perhaps who sits on their boards. I want to know the mission. I can learn that and make a donation. If they use my money to pay their phone bill, so be it. I gave to the cause.

If you give to a person, less research is possible. So I give because someone in trouble is asking. I can't be that attached to what they do with it once I do, because see, it's a gift. I am offering a gift, perhaps under persuasion, but I am still offering it nonetheless.

So, Em. This is a long way for me to say that I think we spend our money in other ways that should give us greater concern. That we'd have to really work hard to ensure no one is doing something you don't want them to do with your money. The government went to war (to feed our addiction) with my taxes the last three years, and beyond voting the bastards out of office there is little I can do.

At least when you give to the guy on the street, it's quite possible you are actually helping someone. The unknown quantity is probably better odds towards the side of good than most of our spending. Besides, it's a nice thing to do. Your humanness will matter. Almsgiving is a virtue.

I welcome your thoughts. And for what it's worth, I don't own a single diamond.

But hell if I didn't fill my tank up yesterday.


hel said...

I agree. We can never really judge someone untill we have walked in their shoes and even if we have and got out of the shoes we still cannot judge.

Because we are not them we will never know what drives them and why. Maybe they are bad people and maybe they are good people going through a bad time. And maybe something else we could never imagine.

So all we can ever do is do what we believe in our heart to be right.

meno said...

Living the life unexamined would lead to lots less pain.

Everything must be questioned. It's exhausting.

Thanks for the explanation. i will be less stingy in the future. I cannot control how the money is spent, only the giving of it.

Deezee said...

I fully agree with you here. And you've shifted my attitude towards giving through all your posts on this issue, though given where I live, I could never give all that is asked. Once again, I thank you for your informed perspective on this issue...

flutter said...

Don't you think, if giving cash is causing uneasiness that there are other things to give? For example, if someone is hungry, perhaps buy them some staples to eat for a few meals?

I remember my Mother being confronted (and it was confrontational in nature) by a man who said he wanted some fucking money to buy a coat. She asked him what size he wore, then went and bought him a coat. They both cried when he put it on and apologized for being rude. I still think about him.

jen said...

flutter. yes, i do. absolutely. it's about the humanness. exactly what you wrote.

karrie said...

What a thoughtful post.

While I was never on the street or forced to beg for change, I grew up poor and have been a well-hidden homeless person before for short periods of time. (Meaning I had a job and a car, and was able to shower at work so no one was the wiser.)

The only situation where I'm reluctant to give change is the people who approach my car. I'm not sure why this bothers me, but it does. It seems oddly aggressive somehow, and I probably feel even guiltier ensconced in a comfortable vehicle while they're begging in the cold or heat. In the summer, I'm more likely to offer a bottle of water instead of money.

Lucia said...

I'm turning this over in my brain. I've always been of the mindset that said, "Give the money to social services, and they'll pass it on in an organized way to the homeless (or provide services)." What's making me re-think this is that you're absolutely right about the other things we spend on. In truth, do I really need to know where that dollar went? More than I need to know where my dollar went for gasoline? (I fill up at Citgo, and feel fairly certain it's going to social programs in Venezuela.) But, say, other things that I don't know. OK, I'm rambling. But maybe next time, I will give $. What if it were ME?

mamatulip said...

Again, Jen, you make me think. About how I react to the homeless (granted, I don't see that now, where I live, in a relatively small town, but I used to live in The Big City and saw it every single day), how I choose to spend my money and what I choose to spend it on.

Again, thank you. This is a great post.

DaniGirl said...

Interesting post. I work right downtown but live in a leafy suburb, so I see both ends of the spectrum every day.

I'll give spare change when I can to folks who are older than me, but I'm often reluctant to give to young people. I can't get over the idea that most young people, if they really wanted to, could do some job, any job, that would treat them better than begging on the street.

As much as I try to be generous, I try even harder to be kind. When I don't have change to spare, I do always offer a smile and a polite no. Everyone deserves the dignity of acknowledgement.

Mayberry said...

Thank you for talking about this. It's something I confronted all the time in New York City, of course, and now here in smalltownUSA it's still good to be reminded about living responsibly and charitably.

Julie Pippert said...

I can't possibly agree more.

This is an excellent explanation.

At the shelter, when we were screening donations, some people were infuriated. I heard so many angry words that all boiled down to one line:


And THAT infuriated me.

I recall telling one furious lady, as politely as I could, as she attempted to dispose of the equivalent of garbage to us, out of the back of her Mercedes sedan, "They're people, our neighbors. They have dignity too, and deserve a certain quality."

She looked at me as if I had grown two heads and said the only other thing guaranteed to make me crazy, "They should be GRATEFUL for whatever we choose to give to them. GRATEFUL!"

And that's what bugs me sometimes: why people give, what they expect in return.

And how sometimes they think it means they have some authority, some say in this other life.

You're right about having to consider adding to pain. I think we have to consider it, very consciously. Very mindfully. Choose what we do.

But once we choose, if we choose to hand over, then we have to let it go. It's no longer ours, and it can't go with strings or expectations.

Thought-provoking as usual!

Thailand Gal said...

I tend to think of charity as a conscious practice within myself. The moment I decide to give money, I give up the right to my attachment to it.

That is the essence of it. We can fall into a level of cynicism that will stop us from doing most anything. Sometimes it's better to just give without analysis or evaluation. We can't be responsible for what someone does with the money but we can be responsible for sharing.



Mrs. Chicky said...

Interesting perspective, as usual. You always make me think, lady. That's a good thing.

NotSoSage said...

Woman, if you weren't already taken (twice), I'd ask for your hand. And I wouldn't offer you a diamond...I'm observant like that.


I think I have what some might consider fairly whacked out views on drug use. I think we all self-medicate...whether it's shopping for clothes, requiring coffee to stay awake, hiding porn mags under our mattress or shooting up, we're all trying to deal with feeling imperfect and broken or needing a little help to get through the day. I can't believe it when I hear people say (and I do, often), should we really be giving them money, what if they...?

I don't like my taxes going to a bunch of conservative f*cks who stop a safe prison tattoo program that will stop infections from raging through prison populations because they apparently can't do math or follow the age old wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 'Cause, you know, if prisoners are getting safe tattoos from an experienced person AND learning a trade, people might think they're enjoying themselves in the joint. Seriously?

Okay. My rant is done...but I just want to weigh in and say you rock and if you do make it up to Toronto, you're going to have to stay for a long time so you can make the rounds. I get the impression that J and Joe would get along...and I'd love little M and Mme L to hang out.

NotSoSage said...

OMG, I just saw my comment in full. That was loooong! My apologies.

Oh, The Joys said...

Thanks for writing this one Jen.

It's all so true.

I especially like the separation of yourself from the use of the money when it is a gift.

We don't get to determine what happends to gifts after they are given - so giving money is also giving power - power to choose what to do with it.

kgirl said...

on a very very cold night not too long ago, a man was asking for change outside of the drug store. it was really cold out, so i went and bought him a coffee at the shop next door, and brought it out to him.
he refused it. he didn't like coffee, and scolded me for not asking him if he wanted one first.

i was burning with embarassment. on one hand, he is of course entitled to his dignity, and perhaps i shouldn't have assumed that he would want a coffee just because i wanted to help. on the other hand, the saying, 'beggars can't be choosers' did come to mind. maybe i just can't get over his rudeness, even though i don't know his mental or spiritual state and shouldn't exactly expect him to extend social niceties, considering how society has probably treated him.

oh, i don't know. now i'm afraid to help.

cinnamon gurl said...

Thank you thank you thank you.

This is a fabulous and insightful post.

I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Mad Hatter said...

Jen, you are lovely. Positively lovely. And articulate and caring. I'm so glad I snagged you before Sage came along. But ya know, I would be into a threesome.

Seriously, Jen. This was such an engaging defence of caring for our fellow citizens. I had never heard the argument that our money goes to fule addictions all the time--that was, to my mind, brilliant reasoning.

ECR said...

Thanks for this thought provoking post. I am not nearly as well versed when it comes to homelessness, but I do have insights into addiction, and that's where I start to veer off from your line of thinking. Like we all do, I put things into a personal context in order to try to understand them. So, with this, I think of my father and his alcoholism. Had my mother done the equivalent of giving him money to feed his habit by enabling him to engage in his destructive behaviors, the situation would have never improved. Instead, she supported him by making him realize the importance of going to an alcohol rehab program. I still remember those long months when I was six. He came home and has been clean since. His best friend, however, never recovered and died recently of an overtaxed heart.

So, back to handing out money on the streets: I don't think it's hypocritical to address a situation that is right there, palpable, in front of me one way while not necessarily extending that line of thinking to other, larger contexts. Morality is a journey, and it has to start somewhere. Because I think it's so important not to enable destructive behaviors, I really appreciate your insight into the ways in which most of us do that every day. I will try to be more cognizant of those things as I look for a more consistent morality. But for me, in my heart, I do not believe that me giving a dollar or two when approached on the street will contribute to the betterment of that person's situation.

So, here's another question for you: what CAN we do that will have a more long lasting or permanent effect? What do you, as someone who works trying to eradicate homelessness, wish that others in your community would do to help realize that goal?

Anonymous said...

I may be gullible and naive but I always believe people. More often than not, people are honest with me. As for people asking me for money, I figure that if they're willing to stand at a traffic light in the middle of winter and ask strangers for money, then they must need it more than I need it and I'm happy to share what I have with them.

jen said...

ecr, sister...quite a challenging question. i'll see what i can do about answering that one this week.

everyone, thank you. i am really enjoying your insights and perspectives.

jen said...

oh, one more thought..ecr wrote
in my heart, I do not believe that me giving a dollar or two when approached on the street will contribute to the betterment of that person's situation.

and i agree that it won't make a difference in any sort of practical way - a dollar only goes so far.

but at the root of it is hope. hope for a better life. hope that you are worth it. and i have to believe that our kindness, whether accompanied by cash or not, helps move in that direction - for both parties. but it's not going to solve the problem by itself.

QT said...

Nice post, Jen. I think it clarified a lot. It isn't really our job to figure out if a person is worthy of our donations of cash, time, clothing or food. Of course, everyone wants to maximize their giving, that I understand. I personally feel there is a larger mechanism at work that will figure out the "worthiness" for me.

I often give change if I have it (tho I share danigirl's predjudice against teens/young adults, for the same reasons)or when I smoked, cigarettes. I have more than once given people on the street my styrofoam box of food leftover from a restaurant.

Recently, when I was putting together a donation box for the soldier project, I specifically spelled out in BOLD, ALL CAPS - NO GLOVES. Apparently, members of the military need special gloves to handle their weapons with. Lo and behold a coworker (Tool, from the Christmas party post)purchased 25 pairs of cheap ski gloves, completely useless. I ended up donating them to a kid's snowmobile club, so they weren't a complete waste. But he had the same attitude - beggars can't be choosers.

Kyla said...

Jen, you are so wise and well-spoken. Gifts are meant to be gifts, no strings attached. We should give because we are blessed with the things we need and want, and because others aren't always so lucky. The act of giving is what is important, the human kindness, the gesture that they are still people and they do matter.

Penny said...

Jen - this is an incredibly well written post. I have more to say, but I have to pick up Oee from daycare. I'll be back, if my pc is working.


Nancy said...

Jen, thank you so much for this post. I have never considered some of the perspectives that you provided here -- I appreciate you educating me to some of the things I have not thought about.

And I have bookmarked this post so I can come back to it, whenever I need a reminder.

Emily said...

Jen, thanks for this very well-written post. I really appreciate your perspective and you are right about the larger societal addictions...oil, diamonds. I haven't heard things framed in that way. I think knowing a number of kids who live with adults who struggle with drug addiction and the way that impacts their lives, leaves me even more hesistant to randomly give money but thanks for these me things to think about. I look forward to your response to ecr.

crazymumma said...

Yowza. I loved this one. Funny, yesterday, I went to buy some wine and outside was a man I have seen for years, I don't like him at all, just a gut response I suppose.But he asked and I gave. Why? Because I don't know why he is there. I don't have the right to judge.

Then I went in and bought my wine, addiction #1 and drove off in my car, addiction #2.

Shit. It is a circle jerk. It really is.

Denguy said...

Ugh, as I slump in pain at least I am in the warmth of my home.
I never ask for what they need the change.
We aren't meant to judge them, we are just asked to give.
It's up to you to decide if you will.

KC said...

This is important writing here. Spreading insight and humanness to those around you. You are amazing.

I have to say that I feel uncomfortable giving money if I feel it will go directly to alcohol or tobacco or street drugs. Perhaps due to the doctor in me- I can't do it. I hear what you are saying in the other indirect ways of harming others, but it is so direct for me- the substances I counsel daily.

I give food. My lunch. Whatever food I have on hand. Or can buy. I know they need food to survive but that cigarettes and alcohol and illicits will only break them further. That's when we see them in the hospital.

scribbit said...

My husband and I talk about this frequently. I was at Walmart last year during a cold spell and there was a guy who approached me carrying an empty propane cylinder and said he needed $17 to fill it up and heat his trailer with his kid and wife in it. I looked at him and gave him all the cash I had (still wasn't quite enough) and left to go into the store. I realized that he very well could have been panhandling to buy drugs or whatever but--if I can get a little religious for a second here--I'd hate to get to the other side and try to explain that "hey, I thought the guy was going to buy drugs, I didn't know the baby was going to freeze to death." It's not really my job to judge people's legitimacy in those circumstances. Though I have to say that I do believe that it's much better to give generously to institutions that help the homeless rather than giving directly to them, and that's the route we take in our personal donations, but when you're face to face with someone who is suffering for whatever reason how can you turn them away when they ask for help? They might be lying but who am I to figure out who is honest about needing help and who is lying?

And if I can get just a tad more verbose . . . can I say it bugs me terribly to have door to door panhandlers? I NEVER give money to door to door people. We live in a nice neighborhood and get a constant stream of high school students raising money for band trips to Hawaii, Europe, the moon, whatever. It's nothing more than begging for money and while I have sympathy for those really suffering it chaps my cookies to have some high school kid who won't bother to get a job because he thinks Taco Bell is beneath him and then proceeds to ask me to finance his vacations. I've wanted to say "fine, I'd love to donate to your vacation and as a matter of fact I'm thinking about Hawaii myself, how's about giving me something for my trip?"

But actually what I usually say is, "I'm sorry we have limited funds and have chosen to donate to causes that feed the hungry and shelter the homeless." Even telemarketers can't argue with that. Who can argue with feeding the hungry?

Okay, enough I'm done :)

But I do own one diamond. It's not too big but it's special :)

scribbit said...

Hey, that was practically a post in itself, huh?

Tabba said...

Jen - thanks so much for sharing your wonderful perspective. I had wondered what your thoughts were on this.

Rav & I are so divided on this. I take the stand point that you do. If I have a few bucks, I'll give it to someone.
Rav is less likely.
I truly think that in his mind, he thinks it a safety issue, when I'm confronted by someone when I'm alone at the drug store or whatever.
I wish that I were able to explain it to him. I think I'll direct him here if it ever comes up again. I never could find the appropriate words and here you are speaking so beautifully!

Susanne said...

You know, between your last posts you probably have turned me around on this issue. I used to say that those people should stop bothering me since they can go and get welfare so they at least have a place to stay, food and clothes. I don't like being approached like this. Granted, our social security system here in Germany is still far better than that of the US but on the other hand at least I can treat other people as people and giving a little cash doesn't hurt me in the least.

Thank you for making me reconsider.

Deb said...

I appreciate your helping me to finally put into eloquent words how I feel about that question, I get it so often too.

Beautifully done my friend....

I too, give because that is a human being asking for my help.

Oh, The Joys said...

p.s. - I don't own a single diamond either.

carrie said...

I think you are incredibly right. I've never thought about it that way (giving to the people on the street corner) but it makes sense.

A gift is a gift. You don't choose what the person does with it after it's given. End of story.

I just wish there was a better way, for everything.


kim said...

I never thought about it from this perspective. My husband always gives when asked because he feels he has no right to judge. If a few dollars helps them get through another night, yes even in the form of a bottle of booze then so be it. Do we really think that by not giving the person the money that they will become sober, get a job and seek appropriate help?

I agree with you that giving money on the streets does not fix the problem, but it does for that moment suggest to that person that someone cares. Like you said it's the hope.

radioactive girl said...

I read a book about this (A Short Course In Kindness by Margot Silk Forest) and one of the points I got from it is that you can give and choose what you believe about what they did with the money. The act of trying to help is a good thing. I am not explaining it very well at all, but what she wrote meant a lot to me.

Rachel Briggs said...

brilliant post. When I was 13 and on my first trip to Paris, I gave my entire holiday spending money to a tramp on the street on the first day. My parents were mortified! Now I sometimes walk past someone hunched in a blanket on a street corner, even thought my heart tells me to stop. Shame we lose our trust in our hearts, sometimes.

Marymurtz said...

I guess I have learned through the experience of having a homeless family member that sure, that person may not spend the money on something we'd approve of, but much of the time, their asking is not about what they're requesting, but their unspoken plea for some simple human contact. So many people who are homeless are shunned and treated as invisible. I don't pretend that kindness is a panacea, but wouldn't it be nice to see what kind of impact consistent kindness would have on everyone?

Christine said...

What a wonderful, thought provoking post. It is so wonderful to realize that there are like minded people out there. I'm glad to have stumbled upon your blog.

ps I just lost the one diamond I owned, but am considering replacing it with something else. Someday. . .

Lisa said...

Excellent post and a lot of good, thoughtful responses. Thank you.

I would like to add a couple thoughts to this long list of comments. There are a couple considerations people often don't take into account in all this wrestling.

One is what people will do if they do have a physiological addiction that they need money to feed. If the individuals don't get the money they need by asking, the intense pain and other side effects of the withdrawal they experience often lead them to do things that are horrible and dangerous. If they survive it, they use anyway. Please google "vancouver missing women" if you need more hard facts.

And second, it can be remarkably difficult for people with low or no income to get into detox/ treatment/ recovery. Giving to shelters, food banks, etc. is excellent, but if you are really concerned about drug or alcohol misuse, find out what services there are in your area, how difficult and costly it is to access them, and find one you like that you can send some money to or write your politicians about.

I'm sick with a cold and tired after a long week in my life with the homeless community in my neighbourhood here in Canada (yes, we have similar problems to the U.S.), so apologize if this isn't worded as eloquently as the subject matters deserves.