Thursday, August 16, 2012

I've Said My Peace and Counted to Three

 I'm about to get all political. My apologies...

I read this story on Facebook yesterday. It's making the rounds, getting like after like. It made me so irritated that I dreamed about it last night and woke up talking about it first thing this morning:
"Recently, while I was working in the flower beds in the front yard, my neighbors stopped to chat as they returned home from walking their dog. During our friendly conversation, I asked their little girl what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said she wanted to be President some day. Both of her parents, liberal Democrats, were standing there, so I asked her, "If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?" She replied... "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless people." Her parents beamed with pride! "Wow...what a worthy goal!" I said. "But you don't have to wait until you're President to do that!" I told her. "What do you mean?" she replied. So I told her, "You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim my hedge, and I'll pay you $50. Then you can go over to the grocery store where the homeless guy hangs out and give him the $50 to use toward food and a new house." She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?" I said, "Welcome to the Republican Party." Her parents aren't speaking to me anymore."
Today, I opened up Facebook to post a reply, but I felt like I was personally attacking a friend, who is actually very nice. So I'm posting it here instead.

My original reply:
This story reveals a sad lack of understanding about the homeless. Here in North Carolina, for example, about 20% of homeless people have a mental disability (some sources put it much higher at 30-40%), and 20% are children. 30-40% have a serious substance abuse problem. The small number of employable adults that are left are not on the streets because they WANT to be, but it's not super easy to go from homeless to employed when you may not have had a place to sleep the night before, or food to eat, or a shower, or presentable clothing, especially during a recession when jobs are scarce for everyone. If this story were about employable adults who are mooching off the system because they are lazy, I might be like, "Good point." But centering the story around the homeless shows a lack of knowledge, understanding, and a serious lack of compassion that makes me really really sad.
You can stop reading now if you want. The rest of this post is more of my thoughts on this subject, and I tell you what, I have an opinion!

If you feel like reading on, let's consider the suggested scenario of inviting the homeless guy over to your house to do some work in your yard so you can pay him $50. I live in a house downtown, so I occasionally do have homeless or poverty-stricken men come to my door, sometimes simply begging but often asking to mow my lawn in exchange for money. The first time it happened, the thought that went through my mind was sadly not, "Awesome! I'm so glad he's at least trying to work." My thought was, "My kids!!!!" And I very quickly turned him down and shut the door. I felt incredibly guilty about it, but I also felt that it was the right thing to do. Three years later, after discussing the scenario with my more experienced neighbors, my answer is, "The Salvation Army is just down the street. Here's how you get there."

But let's say you're more charitable than I am, and you actually would invite a strange man to work in your yard for $50. Now what can he do with that money? Hopefully, you were generous and gave him food and water, so all he has to worry about is shelter. He can't afford to stay at any of the hotels downtown. He could take public transportation out to the suburbs to a cheaper hotel, but then again, we're saying that the government shouldn't help the poor, so no public transportation. Anyway, he's trying to get out of his homeless situation, so he would rather save his $50. If he's lucky, he'll get a bed at the Raleigh Rescue Mission. More likely, he'll have to find a place to huddle down outside where he'll be warm or comfortable enough but won't be chased off by a cop. He's gotten very little sleep, hasn't been able to shower or shave, and his clothes are filthy (not to mention that he likely has a mental disorder or substance abuse problem - see statistics above), but I'm sure if he can find enough people who will let him mow their lawns (and doesn't get robbed - remember, he doesn't have an address, so he can't open a bank account), he'll be able to get out of his situation soon enough.

Of course if you're more like me and would rather not have a stranger mowing your lawn while you and your kids are in the house, you could always give your $50 to an organization that helps the homeless - providing shelter, food, clothing, and even drug recovery services. I really think this is a great idea. I really do. If you actually do it. But times are tough, the kids have soccer and music lessons, food prices keep going up, and if you live out in the suburbs or out in the country, it's pretty easy to forget that the homeless even exist. I know how it goes; I've been there. I also know how hard it can be for a non-profit to provide services when they're relying on the charity of others, especially during a recession.

Personally, I would rather do the work, make the 50 bucks, and let the government use some of what I've earned to set up safety nets so people don't become homeless in the first place and to collaborate with community organizations to help people transition out of homelessness. I don't believe people who are able to work should get to sit on their butts living off my hard-earned dollars, and I definitely don't think the welfare system is perfect. But getting people out of poverty - and especially homelessness - is more complicated than simply stating, "They need to get a job!"


  1. Angie Alley AndrusAugust 16, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    I completely agree. Most homeless shelters will ask you to not give cash directly to those they help because the shelter knows what the people they're helping are going through. Plus if you'll remember a girl in Utah was kidnapped by the homeless man her father hired to work on their roof. I doubt Ed Smart has hired anyone homeless since.

    1. Sadly, I doubt many parents have hired any homeless since that happened.


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