Over the last few weeks there has been a barrage of articles about panhandling and homeless. I understand this. It’s January. Toronto is cold, freezing actually. Shelters are over full and Shabbir Jaffa and another unidentified man died because of these facts. Sadly these are issues that we drop come July or August. I recently read an article about how to give to panhandlers. The author states that they are unwilling to give money because they are unsure how it will be used and don’t want to an unwitting participate in the person’s harm. Stating, “I am not trying make gross assumptions about addictions and homelessness, nor am I taking a stance on the issue of how one spends their money because both of these issues are very complex … but suffice it to say that I believe everyone has the right to do with their money as they wish and once you give money to someone else, they have that right just like anyone else.”
Yet, this statement does make gross assumptions about homelessness and the people who experience it. In a recent study of people panhandling in San Francisco, 94% disclosed that they spend the money they collect while panhandling on food. Less than half admitted to spending that money on drugs or alcohol. Even if that were not true, who are we to judge how someone else spends their money? It feels as we need to treat homeless people as children, as not capable of making decisions which would be best for their situation. You may not want to give money to homeless people, that is your right, but feeling bad about it, is your choice not theirs.
The author writes, “when we’re in the car and are approached by someone at a red light, we always feel awful. Keeping the window closed and ignoring them seems like no way to behave.” So don’t, open the window, say hello. Say you have nothing to offer.
The author goes on “It’s nice to have a mix of healthy snacks and treats. Our kits will include: granola bars, bottled water, juice, protein bars, raisins, a $5 gift card to Tim Hortons and a note saying, “Have a nice day”. You could also include a small flashlight with batteries or some Hot Paws in the winter. Purchase some cellophane bags and ribbon from the Dollar Store and package individual kits. Storing 5 kits in your glove box is a good place to start.”
While, the sentiment is well meant. I wonder what it would be like to be on the receiving end. Each item separately might be okay to receive, but I suspect that a pretty package wrapped with ribbons and a note wishing them ‘a nice day’ would feel demeaning. This is not a child’s lunch box after all.
While I understand the desire to give and to have your children see compassion in action. I think there are more productive and less demeaning ways to go about this. Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse, has this suggestion, “ I have a formula to help …. and it’s based on the notion that social justice involves more than charity. The equation is simple. It’s one-third plus one-third plus one-third and it’s a formula for social justice not charity. The formula ingredients could be your time, your energy, your passion, your creativity, your letter writing or some other skill, your donations including your money.”
Homelessness is a complex issue. It can be an uncomfortable one. Unpacking privilege is not an easy process. One we collectively need to work if we are to stop people from dying on our streets.