If you have ever visited Washington D.C. and have been taken aback by the sight of people lying in the middle of sidewalks as others buzz by to get on with their duties for the day, then you know that homelessness is a dire problem in America.
Earlier this year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released a report entitled “The State of Homelessness in America 2012” that collects data from 2009-2011. The report indicates that the nation’s homeless population is a little more than 636,000—which, despite the recession, is lower than 2009’s total of approximately 643,000. While the overall number of the homeless population decreases, largely because of prevention programs funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the number of unsheltered homeless people increases. This number goes from close to 240,000 in 2009 to almost 244,000 two years later. People who live on the streets, or in cars, or in abandoned buildings or other places not really intended for human habitation are represented here.
Now, I don’t know about you but I see these people often. They are the ones who come to your car window when you’re waiting at the light to hop onto the expressway. They stand outside of your favorite fast food joints and ask for spare change. Or, if you live in Chicago like me, they point enthusiastically at the empty parking space downtown that you’ve already spotted, lend their unsolicited and unnecessary parallel parking expertise and then expect a tip for “helping you out.”
What do you do when you encounter our nation’s homeless? I’ll be honest; I’m conflicted sometimes. I’m a bleeding heart and almost always want to help if someone asks me too, but sometimes it feels like I’m being played. Not everyone is who or what they appear to be and certainly not everyone does what they say they will do. I’d have a problem if I decided to give someone money for food and they decide to buy…say, crack instead.
Because that possibility doesn’t sit well with me, I usually opt to purchase exactly what people say they need. If they say they’re hungry, then I buy food of their choice, but even this gets me in trouble. I’ve literally taken people into restaurants, bought them what they asked for and then watched them go outside, place the food on the ground and ask the next person for help getting food. WTH!? I’ve purchased meals for people only to see them the next day in the very same spot eating that day’s complimentary meal purchased by some other unsuspecting fool. When they see me, they try to hide and play crazy because now they know I’m aware that I’ve been hoodwinked. When people say they’re stranded and need to get to a shelter and want money for bus fare, I’ve bought bus passes. Yet, I’ve seen these people days later in the same spot, with the same story, asking me for the same help all over again.
And can we talk about some homeless people’s standards for a sec? There’s the guy who tells me and a cousin as we return from dinner that he’s so hungry and that all he wants is food– no money, just food. He’s SO hungry! Yet, when we give him the barely touched pizza that we’re carrying, he looks at it, tells us “Oh no, I don’t eat swine” and returns it. And there’s also the guy who tells a friend he just wants coffee and a doughnut and when she takes him into the Dunkin’ Donuts, he asks the worker of the Bavarian cream donuts “Now, do yours have the white cream or the yellow cream ’cause I don’t like the ones with the yellow cream.” I mean, I support people who refuse to lower their standards and all, but don’t desperate times call for desperate measures?
I could go on and on with ridiculously outlandish and hilarious stories about my encounters with homeless people throughout these great states of America, and I’m sure you could too. I’ve seen and heard enough to make any sensible person cautious of giving anything to anyone they don’t know. However, I am also reminded of how often my heart sinks and shatters into pieces as I drive under viaducts in bitter cold Chicago winters and see people sleeping on slabs of concrete, at risk of literally freezing to death. Who can look into the face of such human suffering and grave need and not be affected? Could you?
So the question is, to give or not to give? What do you do when confronted by requests for help from people who appear to be homeless? Do you give money, do you give food or do you have some other method of helping out? Have you had “interesting” encounters with homeless people? I certainly have, but let’s hear your stories.
Sheena Bryant is a writer and blogger in Chicago. Follow her on twitter at @song_of_herself.