Sunday, October 31, 2010

Life on the streets. What's your opinion?

During my daily travels I have witnessed a couple things on the streets: 

Scenario 1.  There is a large plant nursery where every morning men congregate hoping for the chance to find work for the day.  If a person or business needs casual labor, especially manual labor, they stop and pick up enough men for the job.  I'm sure that these are under the table income jobs with no guarantees or benefits.

Scenario 2.  At the bus stops, parking lots, and corners there are those with signs asking for donations.  The sign may describe "jobless", "veteran", "3 kids", etc.  You've probably seen them.  People pull over and hand them a dollar, change, food, or whatever.  Some are more direct and walk up and ask for a cigarette or money.  They also seem to be the same people everyday in the same places. 

The situations cause me to pause but I don't have a definite opinion or answer even for myself but wanted to share a couple of thoughts and observations about those who seem to have hit the bottom of the economic ladder.  Here are some random thoughts and questions I have each time I am confronted with the situation:

For those in Scenario 1.
  • I commend you for the daily effort.  This cannot be an easy way of life.  Never knowing where or if the next dollar is coming from. 
  • Of course one has to wonder why not or if unemployment benefits are being received. 
  • Is there the same amount of effort exercised at the unemployment office for finding work, even if it is just for a day?
  • Do our programs for the unemployed promote this level of desire and willingness to work?
  • Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped by a man who had done odd jobs for the family.  Can a certificate be issued to show that workers have passed a criminal background test?

For those in Scenario 2.
At lunch time I grabbed my couple of dollars and walked across a parking lot of an upscale restaurant to do my errands. I noticed a woman approaching all the people entering and exiting the building.  As I continued my walk she approached me and asked if I could give her some money.  Having only what I needed I told her that I did not have to spare but felt badly as I have difficulty telling people no if it is a small request.

The next day the same thing but this time I felt decidedly uncomfortable as I realized this was not a one time event for her but her "territory".  That really bothered me as I contemplated what to do.  As this was a place I expected to travel daily should I ignore her? Give her something everyday?  It bothered me a lot and I would come home and debate whether I should give her food, money, nothing?  But, did I even really think this was okay for her to approach the restaurant goers daily as her way of making a meager living?  She was clean and respectful.  She must have had a place to go for a shower and clean clothes.

I admit, if someone asks me for a dollar or even a large amount for an unexpected problem it's no big deal, I'm happy to help, and I expect nothing in return.  I have provided time, food, money, clothes, help with medical bills and even a home to those in need.  But if they ask me frequently I definitely want to start talking to them about wise money management, budgeting, and seeking new opportunities.  It's just who I am as annoying as that can be at times.

I think what baffled me most about this situation was my own reaction.  Generally I would have tried to come up with something even if it meant doing without what I had intended to purchase just so I could be helpful to someone else.  This time my internal reaction was an easy "no" that surprised even me.  Was it some internal warning or am I getting more grouchy or discerning as my years pass?

The third day I was ready.  I had decided I was going to talk to her and then decide what part I wanted to take.  It might have been easier to just give her a dollar but remember it was possible that she might be there everyday and now a part of my life whether I liked it or not.  I did not want to put myself in a position where felt like I had to pay a toll just to pass through the parking lot but neither did I yet feel that giving to her regularly was something I could do cheerfully.  Something was not sitting right with me. Mentally I had worked out the following questions:
  • What got you to this situation?
  • What are you doing to change your overall life, or is this it?
  • Where are your family and what are they doing to help you?
  • Is this really the field of employment you have chosen?  I see you here daily.
  • Is it really okay to walk right up to a stranger and ask for money?  How much of that money is given out of generosity and how much just so the giver can keep walking without feeling intimidated or that their space has been violated?
  • I have heard many recent encouragements to be generous to those in need especially on the streets but is this the best way to do it?
Depending on her answers I would decide how I wanted to help.  She wasn't there the next day and I haven't seen her again.

I know that there are times when we may need help beyond what is readily available but it is hard for me to understand why with all the social programs available that people must resort to a life of begging. Have they misused an opportunity or are there cracks in the available help?

What would you have done?

In 1989 I visited Manila, Philippines.  In certain areas when a vehicle would stop, especially that contained an American, the children as young as 5 years old would surround the car begging.  It was truly heartbreaking.  They were thin, dirty, and did not have shoes.  If there was any question as to their financial status or that of their families their homes made of cardboard boxes were not too far in the distance.

I knew a woman who in an effort to escape her physically abusive husband lived in her car for weeks with her three small children until she could make some adequate living arrangements. 

The question of poverty, either temporary or indefinite, is indeed a difficult one for individuals and a society to answer.  Any remedy also provides an opportunity for abuse and being taken advantage of, however, for many the needs are very real and not their fault.  This issue itself is beyond the scope of what this small blog is able to address and each time I personally end up with more questions than answers.

Some would respond with generosity believing that it is better to give too much than not enough.  Others see the need so great that it is easier to say "no" to all.  What do you think?

Squirrelers wrote what I think is a wonderful post called Anybody Can be Generous that was profoundly observant and thoughtful.


Practical Parsimony said...

I have two BAs. a MA, and teaching certificate, all valid and up to date. Yet, I was a panhandler at the rate of $180/hr. My sampling may be too small to count for much. I do not drink, smoke, or do drugs. That experience made me think that one never knows why someone is begging. You can read about it by clicking on my name.

Practical Parsimony said...

Grrr, wrong link. Here it is:

Written Sept 25, 2010 if you cannot find it with the above link. Just try my name and then look at the date.

Panhandling was empowering.