The first time I encountered a homeless person was in a parking lot north of the Mormon church headquarters in Salt Lake City. I was 17. Three of my friends and I were going to spend a beautiful sunny afternoon visiting Temple Square. As we walked from our car, a man approached and asked if we had any change. The immediate answer was no, we don’t. He thanked us and walked away. As we continued on our way, one of my friends said, “It’s not good to give them money, they just use it to buy alcohol.”
Now, I was just a dumb kid from a small, very conservative town who knew nothing about life, but that comment stopped me in my tracks.
I took out my blue velcro wallet, pulled out what cash I had, and gave it to the man. I made him promise that whatever else he did with the money, he would buy booze, too. He agreed, thanked me again and walked away.
By this time, my friends had stopped and turned around. I looked my friend in the eye and said the only thing I could come up with: “If you’re homeless, you might as well be drunk.” That experience was a small stone thrown into a big pond; it made waves that I didn’t understand. My friend’s comment didn’t make sense, and it left a bad taste in my mouth, but what I did felt right or good ... or something.
More than half a lifetime later, I still buy booze for homeless people if they want it. Most people would seriously disagree and be perturbed by my behavior. I don’t care; I still do it. It doesn’t solve any problems—it often just exacerbates them and creates more. I know that now. But I also now understand the look in the eyes of someone who just wants a few more hours of not feeling, not thinking, not caring.
Every year about this time, I’m subjected to so many comments and conversations—both overheard and brought up with me personally—about The Homeless. A tirade ultimately ensues, and I walk away shaking my head, looking for someone to slap.
Now, I’m told that a soft approach is best, and that you get more bees with honey. But I’m not hunting bees and, for the moment, I seem to have misplaced my honey. I want to speak calmly, but indignantly: “Hey, you assholes, who walk on by the homeless and the beggars, ignoring them with a sense of disdain ... who bitch about how lazy or undeserving they are ... who complain that they don’t do any work and are just looking for handouts and a free ride ... who say stupid, ignorant things like, “Well, I don’t give because they’ll just go buy alcohol or drugs ...”
First of all, you have zero information about their life and their backstory and what led them to their current situation in life. Whatever their life is and has been, begging and being homeless and in need is what their life is now. Being homeless is miserable and full of pain, desperation, hopelessness and deep despair; it is a difficult daily struggle to even survive—both physically and mentally.
I’m sure that little piece recently in the Deseret News (a perennial “investigative” report on the fake beggars) gave many of you the confirmation and confidence of your self-righteousness. But take a moment. There are always people who cheat. There are always exceptions to every rule, but the rule is not judged upon, nor determined by, the exceptions.
Fine, don’t give them money, but take off your jacket or your gloves, or your belt, or your socks, or your shirt—or, hell, give ’em your shoes. They can’t buy liquor with that. Hey! Here’s an idea: Make it a two-fer. Give that ugly thing your husband/wife/partner bought you or that grandma gifted you. You’re helping someone out in a less than benign way and ridding yourself of that ugly thing. Or buy them a sandwich.
Either way, get over yourself and your bad attitude toward them.
I was speaking recently to a friend who works with the homeless year-round, and he said the need this year is worse than ever.
“I know, I know, you hear us say that every year,” he said to me, “but it really does keep getting worse every year.”
While they continue to deal with the common issues among the destitute and homeless, he said, they’re also seeing an influx of people and families who, even just five or six years ago, could have managed to scrape by on their own. Now they’re homeless because the inequality in the economy seems to only keep growing. What little benefits there are keep getting cut.
So, to you assholes, stop being assholes, and to you non-giving (not assholes): Give, in whatever way you can and what suits your situation best, but do impart of your substance. Here’s a good one: TheRoadHome.org.
Salt Lake City