Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Once upon a time . . .

You threw the bums a dime, didn't you?"

-Bob Dylan "Like a Rolling Stone"-

Homeless man going through garbage, Wall and Gay, Knoxville
One reality that anyone living in an urban setting must face is the issue of homelessness. While many people weigh in on our local discussion of housing first for the homeless, versus I'm not sure what, those of us who live downtown have a much more personal and less theoretical interaction with the topic. Knoxville certainly seems to have its share of homeless individuals, though I've seen far more in other cities, such as New Orleans. Sometimes I wonder if our homeless population seems larger because of the relative smallness of our downtown area.

I tend to evaluate the homeless people I meet, which may just be a more comfortable word for "judge." I have a mental health background, so I can usually determine who might be mentally ill. Then there are those who seem likely or obviously addicted. Some are old, feeble mentally and/or physically and clearly incompetent to alter their situation on their own. I tend to react differently depending on that determination.

There are also a couple of different groups I've seen come through town in the last year who are young, apparently able-bodied and very aggressive in asking for money, food or cigarettes. They are the most intimidating and the group I feel least inclined to help. They often stay in a group and sometimes block sidewalks forcing people to deal with them.

So what to do?

Reactions to homeless people run a gamut from pretending not to see them or aggressively confronting them, to attempting to help in some way. I'll confess I've been guilty of pretending not to see them - avoiding eye contact because I think I'm about to be panhandled. Of course, some homeless people don't panhandle and some panhandlers aren't homeless, but there is  a large overlap.

Here are some situations I've faced in the last few months:

When passing a small group of young, very dirty, seemingly able-bodied  men I was asked for money. "Help a brother out," or something similar was said. I kept walking and shook my head. As I walked away one of them called out, "That's right. Rich people don't care nothing about the rest of us." The same person saw me later and said something similar.

"Frank" approached me one night on Gay street and asked if I would help a veteran. I kept walking. The next night he approached me on Union Avenue and pitched the same thing, this time displaying a card that, I suppose, was to support the truth to his claim. My companion engaged him in conversation, so he followed us on the sidewalk. I finally gave him a dollar and he kept following us and asked for another. I said no and he laughed and said I couldn't blame him for trying.

A woman, around thirty years old, missing teeth, overweight and poorly dressed stopped my group on Market Square on a Saturday night. She said she had been waiting for someone at St. Johns who was supposed to help her, but that after four hours they said they could not do so. She said she had two hungry children at home (subsidized in Townview Terrace) and she was badly in need of money for her epilepsy medication. She said FISH (local food organization) couldn't help her until Wednesday and that Volunteer Ministries and the KARM wouldn't help her because she had a home. Even if a church could help her later, it wouldn't do her any good right now. She said the police only offered to take her children into protective custody. She pointed out that the missing teeth were from her abusive husband who is now in jail. For twenty dollars she could buy food and fill her prescription.

I've been asked for cigarettes, lights, money, money for coffee and money for gasoline. I heard one woman ask a group of men for money so she could "get drunk and get laid." They gave it to her because, they said, of her honesty.

So what would you have done in each of these situations? What is truly helpful? I'd like to hear your stories of encounters and how you handled them. E-mail me or comment on this post. This will be the subject of this month's poll and I'll also attempt to get answers from some of the downtown people who certainly should have an opinion.
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3 Comments:

At November 7, 2010 at 9:29 PM , Anonymous Yvette said...

I don't carry cash on me so it's always easy for me to say as much to someone asking for monetary help, and so far that's been enough to deter most of the folks who've asked me.

I worked for two years with someone who was very involved in a local soup kitchen type of place for the homeless and he said he (and the group as a whole) advise against giving people cash and said, instead, to refer them to available agencies who may be able to help them, so I keep that in mind when I'm asked for money.

My coworker said it's well known amongst volunteers for the homeless that there's a fairly high percentage of them who make a lot of money from asking people for it and rarely do anything positive with it because they have drug or alcohol addiction problems they are feeding with the proceeds. He said that's why referral to resources is often the best way to go because organizations are more skilled and have more contact with the homeless and therefore better able to identify those who need more than one resource (food, clothing, detox help, etc.) can offer, and get them the help they need by working with other agencies who can fill the gaps and make a longer-lasting difference in the quality of their lives.

With that in mind, perhaps the best help may be to keep a list of such resources available on you when you visit the downtown area and hand that out rather than money, which only prolongs their situation. There are several organizations in the downtown area that the homeless often walk through (Cumberland Avenue to Broadway, including the Market Square and Gay Street district) that would likely help far more than the dollar or two they get here and there from the kind-hearted and well-intentioned people who give it to them.

 
At November 8, 2010 at 8:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having worked with the homeless for 5 years I have found that money is the least helpful thing you could possibly give a homeless person. While not all of them would use it for something illegal, most homeless people do not know how to budget at all (obviously) and often waste their resources for temporary help.
When I am approached I tell them I do not give money out but I always attempt to have a conversation- introduce myself. Ask them a little bit about them self. Often I offer to grab a bite to eat WITH them so that I can both practically help them (food) but more importantly, relationally help them.
When you think about the homeless lifestyle you realize that it's purely a game of survival. If I was out on the street I can bet you a months worth of rent that I'd be doing everything I could think of to better my situation. That lifestyle trains you to manipulate in order to get what you want.
So all that said, there are many different kinds of homeless people. Some that have no choice, some that won't accept help, and some that have grown accustomed to the streets.
My two cents is to get to know these people. We share the same space, live on the same streets, and all need community.

 
At November 9, 2010 at 4:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've met the lady with the missing teeth and she told me the exact same story as she told you. I've also been approached by a few people on consecutive mornings that tell me the same story they had just told me the day before, obviously not remembering me from the previous day. It's difficult to say no but it's also hard to say yes when you've faced people that rehearse a story and use it daily to get you to give to them.

 

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