Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Alienating the Homeless

It isn’t always easy supporting the homeless. Yesterday, I sat with a group of students who care, who are giving up their Sundays and Spring Break to help people in need. Nonetheless, as we took a break, the conversation turned to interactions with homeless people and others who ask for money.

One young woman had been verbally abused after giving a homeless man some change from her pocket. He told her that she should have given more. Another told how a man had asked her for money at the BART station. She offered to buy him a ticket for the train and his response was something like ‘that’s really gonna buy my next hit’. A third woman told how she was approached by a woman who told her she was hungry. Having just left a restaurant, she offered the woman her box of left overs, enough she told us, to feed herself for lunch the next day, and the woman tossed the food on the ground.

How do we deal with these situations? We think we are helping and maybe we are. Perhaps we wonder if we are subsidizing a bad habit, or reinforcing their staying on the street and out of the system.

One way is to support organizations that help the homeless in an organized way. Project Homeless Connect is a great example. Another way is to advocate for social services and enough housing to cater for those who slip through the net.

A while ago, I gave a man enough money for a bus after he told me a long story about being a recovering alcoholic. His sister lived near where we were standing, he was supposed to stay with them for the weekend, and her husband was taunting him by bringing out bottles of alcohol and drinking in front of him. He had to get home. He had run out of her house and left his bag and wallet. He would pay me back if I gave him my address.

I gave him the money and told him to help someone else rather than return the cash to me. I did this, if I am being honest, because I didn’t want to give my address and yet wanted him to feel that I wasn’t giving him charity.

When I entered my house, I told my wife, though the main theme of my story, was had I just been conned. I agonized about it until she told me to decide that I had helped someone and move on. Apparently, since I am telling you this story now, I haven’t.

Finally, a nice story. I often give money to homeless people who are selling the newspaper Street Spirit. I figure that they are trying to earn a living and I want to support their dignity. I gave my sons $1 and told them to buy from a man standing on Shattuck in Berkeley. The man told them that he was a poet and had a poem in the paper. My (then) 7-year-old was intrigued and proudly told the  man that I am an author and we shook hands.

Larry Wyatt selling Street Spirit newspaper

Having seen me sign books for my readers, my son then asked the man to autograph the poem and both their eyes lit up when they did. I wondered if he really had written the poem. I want to believe that he did, that there a moment of magic passed between this old man and my son.

It helps me to continue to advocate or the rights of the homeless and the poor. Perhaps, the magic helped me as well.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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6 thoughts on “Alienating the Homeless

  1. Alon-
    Great closing to this post!

  2. Frankly, me and my family were homeless for nearly a year in total. I’ve arrived at many conclusions.
    1) Even if a person is begging for his next ‘hit’, what precise difference does it make to anyone else?! He/she is not harming anyone but himself… support a ‘bad’ habit so goes the argument, you know what? That person is just like the rest of us trying to feel as good as they possibly can in the best way they know how. Tell that to the supposed ‘self esteem’ experts. Note: I do not partake in narcotics, nor do I encourage their abuse. But I DO demand the answer as to what difference does one person’s choice concerning their bodies make to another to judge?

    2) Another extremely troublesome observation is that people claim to ‘care’ about the homeless… but the problem here that they don’t care, they just want the homeless to be less visible ie. have a box that they fit into nice and neat and most importantly OUT OF SIGHT. The ONLY reason for this psychological dynamic that I can see is that EVERYONE according to the financial stats and avg’s is LESS than 90 days away from the same situation and experience. In other words, most people seem to feel that by ‘giving (of course with stipulations)’ then they would somehow delay their own plights.

    3) Finally, there is the other problem, what to do after said homeless finally achieves a roof over their head. I’ve seen only ONE program that even bothers to address this with financial, nutritional, and even walking alongside type educational approach. This program was talked about in Edmonton. This is definitely imo the way to go for any sort of lasting solution to the ‘homeless problem’.

  3. You know, in reading over my reply I can very much tell that my ‘beef’ is not so much with the dictation of how the money is spent that bothers me. It’s with people giving money, and then walking away. Yet, those same people will protest the loudest at the Gov’t. for the bailouts, carrying signs that read: “You can’t just throw money at a problem to fix it”.

    • Thank you, Patrick, for your post. It is clear that you have a closer-than-most understanding of what is happening with the homeless. Certainly, giving someone a dollar isn’t going to solve anything long-term, but tell that to the person who is hungry and just wants their next meal.

      What is the organization that you mentioned that helps people after they find housing?

      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate you sharing.

      • Just to be clear, I didn’t mean to say or imply that giving money to homeless shouldn’t be done. I think I was actually trying to say that money should be compassionately offered. And there should be help beyond the homeless finding residence too.

        I believe this is the service I was mentioning that looks the most promising to me. Just a disclaimer though, I have no direct personal experience with utilizing this service. But I believe that the concept makes more sense than many of the other services out there.

  4. Kymberlie ingalls on said:

    Alon – as someone asked me in group two weeks ago, did this help you at all therapeutically? Do you feel any better having written it out?

    I hope so, because you’re right – we’ve all heard and probably experienced, and perhaps even ignored these issues with belligerent people simply looking for a handout. But like with anyone, All should not be judged by the actions of one. What a touching story about the moment with your son and the old poet. I choose to believe in him, too. Years from now perhaps your son will be inspired by that man.

    All any of us want is acceptance, to be seen or heard. I rarely give money when asked but I at least acknowledge that someone asked me with a look, a greeting, something that says “I se you.”. It’s what I look for myself, every day.

    Great post.

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