Why I Never Give Pocket Money to the Homeless
As many could guess from the info by my profile pic, I'm from Chicago. Living there now, I've also lived less than an hour away from it for my entire life and visited here dozens of times before. One thing, aside from the main skyline, that hasn't changed dramatically, is the presence of the homeless.
Everywhere on State Street you can spot them. Most of them are black, wearing rags or at the most very worn and frayed clothing. It's a depressing thing to see, and I live right in the center of it all at this point in my life. They know I live in a campus area as well. They beg when I'm walking to the pizza place right by where I live. I almost do give them change. I'm tempted. But then, ironically, it's their stories that make me reverse that thought.
One homeless man sat right on the sidewalk outside the pizza place I frequented. He called to me as I walked past, very friendly, and I'm not even a tourist.
“Hey, young sir,” he said.
Since I'm a writer and I love to listen, I thought I'd hear this guy out, even if I'd pretty much set my mind on not giving him change. I didn't have any on me anyway. This is one of those reasons I hardly ever keep cash on me in the city. So, I walked closer to the guy and stood.
“Don't be afraid, man. I won't bite. Sit down.” He was inviting, not threatening, and I sat down beside him. “Listen.” His teeth were mostly missing. Thankfully, I couldn't smell his breath in the winter air. “I lost my job a year ago. And the reason I lost my teeth is, I got addicted to crack cocaine and crystal meth and I went to the shelter, but they wouldn't take me in for too long. I lost all motivation, man.” Then he turned to me even more, sincere. “What I want to know is, do you have any advice for me? What keeps you going?”
I genuinely (although surprised, thinking I'd had to have misheard him) thought he was asking me for advice. So I gave him some. “Well, I don't know. I keep my eyes on what I want out of life and I pursue it. I don't let the dream die, you know? You gotta keep--”
“Yeah, but...do you have anything you could give me?”
His motives were clear. He was luring me in, like many of them do.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don't have any cash on me.”
He pointed sadly to the building down the street. “There's an ATM right there.”
This part of the conversation repeated itself. He kept assuring me that there was an ATM there and I knew there was, but I wasn't about to give this guy a twenty. I had my own finances to worry about. And he even admitted it was himself who put him in the situation. I apologized to him, still keeping a friendly demeanor, and walked away. Another day I ran into him on another sidewalk (he didn't remember me) I wound up giving the guy a CTA card with some leftover trips on it I didn't need. That was all he was going to get.
A lot of these guys try to guilt you into almost thinking it's your fault for their situation, like their being ignored is some evildoing. But in reality, these people are victims of both the economy and themselves. We're just coming out of a recession, and the influx of these homeless people comes in waves.
They have shelters. I'd feel fine donating to them if I had the cash, but I'm too busy worrying about making a living on my own with the fortunate privileges I have.
Tourists give in much easier to sympathy. They don't quite realize just how many of these homeless there are, and just how many of them are conning their way to getting donations or are simply going to support their drug or alcohol habits with the pity money.
They're everywhere by the Ogilvie train station. You can't go up to the doors there, front or side, without running into groups of them huddled outside. The only ones I consider giving money to are the sometimes talented musicians, the ones drumming away on bucket bottoms and still managing to sound rhythmic and adding flavor to the city. But so many of these homeless are deceptive. Many of them use religion (even if they really do believe) to get other Christians to give change out of finding a similarity with each other. Of course I also have a feeling many of these guys don't realize how many don't believe in God.
My roommate and I were walking down State one night casually, and a bum came up to us, started walking beside us. This one wanted to be a friend. He had a story about how his wife kicked him out of the house and he started talking with my roommate about football and baseball. The discussion went for about a block or so and then he popped the question. “Do you have any change?” When we declined, he left as if he'd never talked to us.
These guys will sometimes try to be your friend and appeal to the humanity inside you and make you believe they simply want to get to know you. These men (and sometimes women) can be some of the best con artists.
It's hard, but when in the city it's best to ignore the homeless when they beg. Sure, it may make you feel like you're giving them the same treatment everyone else is, but you may in fact be helping them to leave their addictions and try to make something of themselves so they will be seen. Feeding the Styrofoam cup will only be feeding what's keeping them homeless in the first place most of the time. And just think about the fact that you are where you are and how you got there. Sure, maybe you were born into a more privileged life, but compromising it for people who could make something of their lives and yet choose not to, is something you can't afford on a regular basis, even if they have families to support. There are shelters, and there's really no reason they shouldn't take anyone in. But they need to take the steps to better their lives once they find one.
Many of them don't even ask for change verbally, instead having their heads bowed with signs saying they have a family to support. One woman (whose ethnicity I couldn't say) had her head religiously facing the ground, a sign held out in front begging for generosity and food. A couple months later, I spotted another woman, black, mimicking the other woman's exact posture and holding a sign out front that said "19 and pregnant" and also begged for help. It was clear to me that begging and panhandling was a pity performance as much as it was begging. One sign I saw had it right: "I'm not a bad person. I've just made bad decisions." But it's never too late to reverse those decisions.
I did one time have a guy who came up to me (same sidewalk as the sitting man) and asked if I could buy him a burger at the street corner. I politely told him no, in fact I was on my way to the train station and had to catch...a train. So he asked for and I gave him a couple of cigarettes I had on me (which he took pretty angrily) and I went on my way. Yeah, maybe I fed into a different kind of addiction, but a burger would have been about eight bucks at that place. I didn't have that kind of money to spend on anyone's meal but my own, as even I didn't have a job, paid through a weekly allowance.
So, giving to the homeless is something I won't do outside of charity or shelter donations. If you know how many of these guys work, you'll never give them pocket change. I used to on occasion, but I know that many of them won't better themselves with any bronze, silver or green they receive. How do I know this? The same ones are always there, year-round, with some more buddies across the street. Unless they're intelligent enough, they'll go even lower.