Homelessness

I give money to the homeless. I buy them coffee. I order meal deals and give them the fries from it, because they are probably hungry and I REALLY don’t need the extra calories. I once bought an extra hamburger for a man I saw digging through a Burger King garbage and got chased away by the manager. I wandered around a block or so looking for him but he was gone.

There is a gentleman who sells his newspaper on the street, who is the friendliest, sweetest man. He willingly, and very gratefully, accepts whatever you have to offer: food, money, or conversation. He has a niece. He wants to pull himself up by his bootstraps but acknowledges that he needs help. He’ll tell you his story if you have a few minutes on a nice day to listen.

The other evening I was walking along the main street going home after work. A man, whose hard life was etched on his face and hands, was begging for money quite respectfully. As I wandered past I stopped to fumble in my pockets for some change, and plunked it down into his empty Tim Hortons cup. I met his eyes, wished him a good evening, received his thanks and the exchange was over.

“He’s just going to use that money to buy drugs you know.”

An older lady strode up beside me, staring me down, scowling at me. I was taken back for a moment, that this woman was so opposed to a complete stranger giving to another complete stranger that she felt the need to point that out to me.

My initial thought was “Lady, you have no idea how much drugs cost.”

I have no doubt that there are a great many homeless people out there afflicted by addiction issues. Many of them have underlying mental health issues. The fact that they are begging on the street for drug money, which is slow and probably doesn’t bring in a whole lot, just shows how desperate these people may be. Also, these people do not have pot addictions, they have hard core drug addictions and drugs are expensive! My thirty-five cents is not going to make the difference between them scoring a hit tonight or not.  I give food over money when I can, but sometimes I only have a quarter to give. I have to put food on my table too.

Even if this man had a hundred bucks in his pocket and was looking to make up the difference, the fact of the matter is that for people whose addictions are so bad they are begging on the street, they may actually need the drugs to survive. At some point it becomes necessary to their functioning. Not getting it could kill them just as much as not eating might.

This does not make them bad people, or people worth our scorn. We do not know their story, how they ended up where they are. We don’t know about what family they may have out there worrying about their health and safety.

I gave all this a moment’s thought as the lady stared at me as if demanding a rebuttal.

“That is his choice,” I shrugged, “I gave him that money as a gift from one human being to another.”

The woman blinked at me and then nodded, her face softening.

For me it’s not about how they are going to use that quarter, for me it’s about taking the opportunity to acknowledge these people…as people! I don’t just throw money in a can and walk away; I stop (as long as it’s safe to do so), say hi, look them in the eyes, and ask them if they need something warm or to eat. If they say no I carry on.

Don’t blame the people who generously give change, or food, to them for perpetuating their problems. Blame the system that sends its mentally ill and troubled bouncing back and forth between jail and the limited facilities at the psychiatric wing at your local hospital.

Even if you oppose giving money to that man or woman sitting on the street corner with their hand out, offer them some time, some food, something warm in the winter.

If they were a family member of mine I would probably hope that enough kind people gave so that they could have the possibility of a meal, or coffee, or something else they need. At the very least I would hope that they would be treated with some kindness. At the end of the day, remember, they are people.

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