I am uncomfortable asking people to do a favor for me, let alone asking them to give me something. Can I borrow your car? Can you loan me some money? These requests are not in my vocabulary.
So when I see people standing at the freeway off-ramp holding a ragged piece of cardboard asking for spare change, I cringe. Not because I feel that person is imposing on my personal values, but because I empathize with people who are so desperate for help they must resort to begging on the streets.
Standing on a street corner with a plea for help scrawled on a scrap of cardboard announces to the world that you are so poor you need a handout. Who wants to broadcast their desperation and open themselves up to the scorn of their neighbors? Who wants to advertise the fact that they can’t afford rent, or even their next meal?
It’s embarrassing. Other people driving by with their late-model German sedans glare like the people on the corner are asking to move into their spare bedroom for free. All they really want is some change to purchase their next meal.
So they stand on the corner, ashamed and vulnerable. Holding onto a sign that broadcasts the hard times onto which they have fallen, knowing that passersby think they’re alcoholics, criminals, or just lazy.
But, when you think about it, the organizations working to help those people who are forced to beg on our streets really aren’t that different.
We, the benevolent caretakers of people hurting on the streets, do our own form of panhandling. We send out letters asking for money. We tweet and post our stories on Facebook, hoping they will inspire people to give a few dollars. We talk about the people we serve with generous philanthropists, with the goal of receiving a big check.
We, the service providers, do an awful lot of begging ourselves. The only difference is that we don’t do it on the streets, or from a place of vulnerability or weakness.
But perhaps we should. Perhaps those of us who are working to end homelessness should walk in the shoes of the people we want to empower. Maybe we should hold ragged cardboard signs on street corners, so those who are truly hurting don’t have to.
Maybe those of us who are housed should hold a sign that states: “I feel safe; I feel loved; I’m collecting for someone who doesn’t.”
Those who are living a life of homelessness have enough to worry about, like finding their next meal, or figuring out where they will sleep tonight.
If we, who are housed, really want to protect those who are un-housed, perhaps we should walk in their shoes and protect their dignity by standing on the street corner for them.
Of course, panhandling is not the ultimate solution. The best way to protect a person who is homeless is to house them.
Photo by Dean Terry.