Thursday, April 1, 2010

Panhandlers and vagabonds

Last night, TC and I braved the rain and snow and wind and walked ourselves to the Trax station, hopped on a train, and rode the few stops to the Gateway, where Tucanos lives. We overate and it was wonderful. We had an extra buy one get one free birthday card (since we both have birthdays in March, we both get a card, and we only needed one) so we gave it to a family of four that was sitting at the table next to us. That gave me a warm fuzzy.

What didn't give me a warm fuzzy was this: Once we got off the train a panhandler stopped us to ask for money. We told him we didn't have anything to give him (who carries cash these days?) and I, thinking I was being helpful, told him that there are a variety of shelters nearby that he could go to. It WAS cold and snowing after all and I certainly don't want him to be out in the cold. The man was offended, visibly, audibly. He told me, and I quote, "I will give you a million dollars right now, a million dollars, if you let one of your children go to one of these shelters." He went on explain that those shelters are rife with drugs, and anyone who sets foot in of those shelters will immediately become a drug addict.

He became pretty belligerent, so I just started to walk away. That made him pretty angry, but neither of us were about to stand in the cold and argue with him about whether or not we could or wanted to or would give him money.

That interaction got me thinking about the billboards I've seen recently around downtown declaring: Support shelters, not panhandlers. We do that. We donate money to charitable organizations that help the homeless, impoverished and needy. Is there more we can do? Sure! But giving money to a man on the street that yells at you isn't the way.

After we walked away, TC commented to me how ironic his statement was, "I will give you a million dollars..." How, buddy? You were just asking me for change.

We have lived and walked downtown now for nearly six years. You can bet that I have seen the same people over and over again asking for money. One man asked me everyday for money for a chicken dinner for his wife and child. Finally, tired of him asking me, I told him I would give him money if he would just leave me alone (bad precedent to set, I know) and never ask me for money again. He agreed and I gave him some of my lunch money. However the next day he asked me again for money. *sigh*

Then there are the people who tell these elaborate stories, like the guy who told us how he had driven here from Wyoming, and ran out of gas, and had no money to pay for a fill up, and just needed enough money to put a little bit of gas in his car to drive to his friend's house in Bountiful. The logic there was lacking. Plus, we had just seen him hang up his cell phone before he came over to us. Call someone, like maybe your friend?

There was one lady that made me laugh: she came up to us explaining that she was very drunk (and one could see that she was not lying), and that she had gambled all her money away in Wendover, and that she took a bus back to SLC and now she was stuck. She wanted money to buy more booze. I appreciated her honesty.

The other night there was a man who stopped us in a parking lot and told us a whole story about how he was a hard-working man, and he had a wife and he took care of his woman, but that they had fallen into some bad luck, and if we could just help him he could stay in a hotel across the street that offered rooms for $20 a night. He already had ten dollars, and he just needed ten more. He appealed to TC saying, "Imagine you were out in the cold with your woman. Imagine your woman ain't got no place to sleep. What you gonna do? You gonna be a man and do what it takes so she has a comfortable bed to sleep in? I'm doing what it takes right now. I don't like being out here. Do you think I like asking strangers for money? No. I don't wanna be begging on the streets for money, but that's what I got to do. If it was just me, I'd go hungry and sleep in the cold. But I got my woman to take care of." We spent a good five minutes with him as he explained that he wasn't able to go to nearby shelters (I can't remember the reason now, but it vaguely made sense at the time) and that he was a veteran and had served this country. He explained why so many other options for the homeless didn't work for him or his wife. His story was good. If nothing else, we enjoyed talking to him. He was kind, and appealed to our sense of empathy, and he won us over.

The whole issue puts me at odds with my senses. I feel sympathy for those who are suffering. My mind gets to thinking, "What if this person is really going to go hungry and cold tonight? What if they truly need help? What if I could have been the person to help them?" And then I feel the irony of the situation: TC and I are going to a restaurant specifically to overindulge and we are denying help to someone who may not have eaten in days. It's taxing to think this all through, and to feel all through it.

So what's the point of this? I'm not really sure what I want to say in the end with all of this. I think I'll stick with the advice to give to charitable organizations, rather than individuals. Hopefully they will take advantage of the resources around them.


  1. Here's something I learned while working in San Francisco. The people who need the most help are the people who are not sane enough to walk around asking people for money. Seriously, the homeless people in San Francisco are different than homeless people I've seen elsewhere because they're legitimately crazy. And seeing them makes me less sympathetic to "less-fortunate" people who actually have their wits about them. I also get really annoyed when people come up to me and ask for money. I never give them any. But, if I walk by someone on the street who looks like they're in really bad shape and they're just sitting there hoping for a break but not disturbing anyone, I'm much more likely to throw them a bone. I don't know exactly how this ties in to what you said, but those are my thoughts.

  2. Jenni, you bring up an excellent point: those who need the most help are not the ones who are able to ask for help. Salt Lake City in particular has a problem with career panhandlers--people who come from the suburbs and take advantage of the people who visit downtown, especially Temple Square, by begging for money. I have never seen a homeless person in SLC just sitting quietly hoping for help. They are usually asking, confronting, or acting offended when you look right past them. My attitude would probably change if I did see someone who was not disturbing anyone.

  3. Call me a jerk, but I never give money to people begging for it on the streets. I've seen and heard too many stories of those people who actually have homes and cars and are just too lazy to work for their moeny. I pay my fast offerings and donate to charities. I trust that they will help those who actually need the help. Plus, when I look at those people asking for money who supposedly have nothing I keep thinking about the THOUSANDS of dollars we owe in student loans for chiropractic college that we are working hard to pay off, how we have three kids to take care of, and how those people most likely have more than me and should actually give me money.

  4. I apologize if we've told you this before, but have we told you about the pamphlets? Mike's mom is a social worker and she used to have a pamphlet she would give to anyone who asked for money or whatever. Mike was sad that he didn't have any of those, and then that day that we all volunteered at the Bishop's Storehouse he found it there and they gave him a few. He made copies and he used to carry them around when we were walking around, and he keeps a bunch in the glove compartment. It's got a free number that a person can call from any pay phone as well as tons of resources, everything from travelers aid to emergency dental care to laundry facilities.

    Mike feels like you can judge by a person's reaction wither or not they really need it. Some people have been really disappointed not to get money, but some people have been really grateful for the info.


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