I feel like the universe has been sending me signs the last few weeks telling me it is time to write this post. It started a week or two ago with my mother, we were in the car running errands together and we saw a person sitting on a curb holding a sign asking for money/help.
This led to a discussion about what we both do in terms of offering help to homeless people we encounter in the world. Personally, I am one of those rare individuals living in this digital world that still keeps cash in my wallet, I give money, usually a few dollars. My Mom seemed surprised by this. She went on to explain how she would rather buy someone a meal than give cash because she is concerned they would use the cash to feed their addiction and she does not want to enable that behavior.
While I am making no judgement about whether her way of handling the situation is right or wrong I will say her answer did not surprise me. I will also say, and I admit this does come with a bit of judgment, I have never in my 32 years of knowing this woman seen her buy a homeless person a meal.
I mean it is a nice thing to say but if you have never actually acted upon it I think the appropriate response to How do you help the homeless? is I don’t.
I know why my response surprised my mother, because she and my father did not raise me that way. They raised me in the judgement place where all homeless people are addicts and we don’t get involved. Furthermore, my mother raised me to be a cautious woman because this world is not a safe world to be a woman in, so I am sure my engaging someone and giving them money scares her in terms of my safety. To that I say I understand her concern but it is my risk to take.
This week we (Todd, myself, and sometimes our friend who is staying with us) have been driving through downtown quite a bit. Our friend’s sister (who we are also friends with) is vacationing nearby right now as well so we have been driving over to her hotel to see her. One night when we were driving home through downtown there was a man with a sign walking through traffic while we were stopped at a light. I did not have my wallet with me.
A night or two later we were stopped at that exact same light and the man was there again and again I did not have my wallet.
This led to a short discussion with our friend about what her church family does for homeless folks which is care packages in the form of backpacks with filled with essentials from what I was understanding. I thought that was a beautiful idea.
I understand not everyone is comfortable giving money, I think a really important starting place in terms of helping folks who are homeless or out on a corner with a sign is not to ignore them as if they do not exist. I think acknowledgement is one small step in the right direction.
I don’t feel like I have all the “right” social work answers to speak to the needs of this population. I have done some work with this population while in school (serving meals at the shelter etc) but this population hits a little too close to home for me and I have not done my emotional work around it in order to feel like I could work with this group without having major boundary issues.
My cousin who was my first best friend growing up is homeless and has been since the age of 18, she is my age now. She is not an addict or a prostitute, she is not a criminal or an alcoholic. She has a mental illness and a long history of trauma. One of the reasons I give money is because every time I see a person with a sign I see her. That right there tells you my boundaries would be a mess, I know I project my own stuff on to this group of people as a whole. At the same time having someone I love and worry about living out in the world, often on the streets or in the woods, makes it so much easier for me to have love and compassion for those who are struggling. I am not passing judgement on this group of people, I just want them to be okay. The only way my cousin has been able to survive this long is because strangers have gotten involved and helped. I have to pay that back anyway I can. By giving money I am taking care of someone else’s loved one just like some stranger out there is getting involved and taking care of mine.
Another reason I give money, this speaks to my Mom’s concern about feeding a person’s addiction, I recognize that the money I give might go towards alcohol or some other substance, I also know that detoxing/withdrawals from alcohol can potentially kill a person, it is not something that a person should be experiencing on the street.
Ultimately when you pass by a person holding a sign you have choices, you can ignore them or engage, you can give them specifically what they are asking for or offer to help in another way. I am not here trying to make determinations about what is right or wrong, good or bad. This topic came up a few times recently and I felt the need to write. I choose to do what I do for very personal reasons in hopes that the energy I send out with this act will some how repay itself in the form of assistance for my loved one. Everyone has their own reasons for their actions and as a result the world still spins.