My attitude about Homelessness has hardened over the past few years. My drive to and around work regularly takes me to the end of the San Diego 8 freeway at Sunset Cliffs Blvd and up/down Rosecrans Blvd in San Diego. This is an area with a large number of homeless people, where the center medians and corners are constantly patrolled by people begging for money. In the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on how my attitudes have changed over the years, and how it seems that the demographic of the people on the corner has changed lately.
Years ago the image I had in my mind of a homeless person was an older woman or man with a shopping cart filled with a plastic bags of possessions. I assumed that homeless people were either mentally ill and not being treated or addicted to drugs or alcohol. I wondered how they went from being a child with all the options most children have in our country to homeless. I wrote a poem about homelessness in a 1995 creative writing class I took in Okinawa Japan.
What goals have you accomplished? Which dreams have you disparaged?
Why has your journey been restricted to a Grey Hound terminal existence?
Have you assessed the value of each treasure in your sacks?
Are all your dreams departed, finally bagged by time and fate?
Did your mother brush your hair, now matted and unkempt?
And tell tales of travels each night before you dreamt?
Where did you start this journey, that brought you to this place?
Here all adventures terminate, suffer only dreams, survival.
I have always attempted to see other people as real, because they are as real as I am. I avoid disparaging people who are different, and I value them as individuals. I hope they feel the same joy about life that I do. I know that the loss of a jobs, high debt, and declining home prices have put many families out of their homes. I’m sure some of the signs that say, “My children are hungry”, or “I need money for my family” are true. I feel horrible for people who may be in such a desperate situation. But I can’t assume that every sign is true, in fact I assume that most are not. I’ve looked at the statistics, 23% of the homeless are families, 58% of homeless report that they can not get enough to eat. But I do not believe the solution for that is to give a person on the corner money. Donate to food banks and homeless shelters. They will find a good use for all the money and food you give and it will not be put to a use that you didn’t intend!
I have been struggling lately when I see young people who look able bodied standing on corners begging. I wonder why they don’t get a job. I wonder what they want the money for. I assume they are itinerant, won’t be in the area long enough to get a job, and that they will use the money for things I would not support like drugs or alcohol. Regardless of why they are begging, I assume that any money I give them will not help them, it will hurt them. This is one attitude that has strengthened for me over time.
Homelessness is a tough issue for me. I would love for it to end, for everyone to have their basic needs covered. I don’t think that is possible, but I do think chronic homelessness can be reduced by supporting strong mental health services, addiction counseling, and rehabilitation services. If no one ever gave a beggar on the corner a dime, they would not be there. But I also don’t see that changing either. People are giving them money, and will continue to do so. Some of that money may go to good use, but I believe a large portion of that money enables self-destructive behavior.