Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tough Calls and Personal Decisions

I'm going to sign off on the current conversation regarding homelessness with this post. It's been more helpful to me than I expected. Just the act of examining the limited alternatives and the responses I got from the two ministers and from Volunteer Ministries and KARM have been particularly illuminating.

Today I heard from Angie Sledge at KARM.

Here are some of her remarks:

"Panhandling should not be encouraged. When you give to a panhandlers you are, in all likelihood, enabling bad behavior and providing money that will be used for inappropriate activity. One lovely young woman who graduated from KARM’s recovery program 3 years ago told me that she made upwards to $500 per day with her story of being a stranded teenager. Truth was, she was a drug addict who just didn’t look “street weary” yet. When people gave her money, they were actually making it harder for her to make the decision to get clean."


Ms. Sledge suggests simply saying "You need to go to KARM. They can help you.” If they say they were turned away they are not being honest, or they are a sex offender or exhibit violent behavior, since those are the only two categories of people who are screened.

She also took the time to respond to each of the choices in the poll:

1. “get a job” – "hard, if not impossible, when you don’t have employment skills; day laboring won’t keep a roof over your head; often they can’t pass a drug test"

2. “avoid eye contact/keep walking” – "that is what the homeless are used to – being ignored, being treated as inhuman; the key factor to someone getting off the street for good is relationship – being treated as a valuable human being – restoring human dignity. So look the person in the eye and say, “Go to KARM.” Then walk on."

3. “decide if they look like they really need the money” – "we can’t judge; looks are deceiving, and people from all walks of life can be manipulative and manipulated"

4. “offer to help in some other way” – "when you do this, you are putting yourself at risk; support the organizations that are experienced and skilled in working with this population; donate your time and money to the right organizations."

She also asked that I encourage my readers to come to KARM to see what they do. Consider yourself encouraged.

So, the information is all in (though I wish I'd heard back from the other ministers). What now? As for  the poll questions, I'd say the first option isn't something I would ever do. I don't know their story and besides, most of the people I meet in this situation aren't employable in their current condition.

I'll certainly admit to avoiding eye contact and walking on. I don't feel good about it, but on the other hand, downtown Knoxville is my neighborhood. I don't "come to town" once a month or even on the weekends. I walk these streets every day. Sometimes I want a walk just to be a walk, not a social service intervention. Sometimes I'm with family or friends and I just don't want to be forced into dealing with someone else. I understand that it is dehumanizing to avoid eye contact, but I also know that making eye contact and speaking to a person is often seen as an invitation to ask for money.

I do sometimes evaluate a situation and I'm going to try to stop that. I think the idea of doing something different to help might be an appropriate alternative if it is carefully defined help. For example, suggesting that they seek out one of the agencies we've talked about is helpful, though not necessarily what they are after.

I also have a hard time shaking the words of Jesus, "I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink." When the apostles said, "When did we do this?" Jesus said if you've done it for anyone, you done it for him. Regardless of your religion or lack of one, that is a high and honorable ethical principle. Still, in 2010, it doesn't necessarily mean that you do it directly.

I'm thankful for everything I have and I have far more materially than I ever expected. For me, that carries an obligation to help others. In the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, it is understood that a certain portion of one's wealth should be given to others. I think this is a good life guide, no matter your tradition.

John Wesley said, "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can." Giving a dollar or two to someone on the street isn't likely to help them and, I'm afraid, most of the time when we do that we are really attempting to assuage our own guilt, rather than realistically hoping to help. So, I believe most of us should give a significant amount of our income to help others and to make our world better. This may mean giving to your church, to Volunteer Ministries, to KARM or whatever organization you think will help - or giving to multiple organizations.

But that still leaves the basic question: What to do on the street, one on one?

I'm going to commit to not giving money to anyone. I'm also going to try more often to engage the persons who ask for my help because, while I can't imagine having a conversation with everyone who asks for anything, I do understand the dehumanizing impact of being treated as if they are invisible.

I also plan to attempt to put together three simple items that I can package and hand to them: A list of places to get help, with phone numbers and addresses, a granola bar (food) and a gift certificate for a cup of coffee (drink). For me this feels like a good compromise. I don't think I'm doing harm. I'm responding to a need. I'm directing them to a place they can get true help. I can fit it in my pocket and always be ready.

So will I follow through or drop the idea and go back to ignoring these people on the streets? I'll let you know. While my decision is a personal one, that still leaves you with a decision to make. Do you feel good about what you've been doing? Do you plan to try something different?
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