When a Holyoke City Councilor said, at a public meeting, “Don’t feed the animals,” in regard to homeless panhandlers, I figured I had a good idea for a fiery column defending people who beg for a living.
It is vile to call any person an “animal” in a dehumanizing way — that’s not up for debate: everyone has worth. But did he have a point, underneath that craven misunderstanding of poverty, about not giving money to people with their hands out?
I didn’t think so until someone I deeply respect, who has worked with homeless people on their mental health for years, mentioned that he does not give money to people on the street.
It almost always goes to their next fix, he said, adding that many homeless people he’s worked with will panhandle until they’ve collected enough for the smallest bag of heroin they can afford — about $6 — take it to the dealer, get high for the next four hours, and then go right back to begging.
The money, he said, “doesn’t help them.” It prolongs their suffering. If you want to help homeless people, give to organizations doing that work and attempting to prevent homelessness already, he said.
I’m rethinking my occasional giving.
But services for homeless people do not keep pace with the need. Nationwide, one out of every four renters pays more than half of their income in rent, according to a 2014 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. A good rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and associated bills. And only one in four of those poor enough to qualify for low-income housing assistance receives it, the study said. Meanwhile, homeless services in Massachusetts are reimbursed by the state at a rate of 30-60 percent — meaning providers of shelters and placement programs are always scrambling for cash, according to the Coalition for Homeless Individuals.
The issue of how to help the homeless is not so black and white, as I’d like it to be.
In Holyoke the City Council recently voted to see how well installing barriers along three medians in the city at intersections popular with panhandlers will discourage homeless people from standing there with a sign, running in and out of traffic to collect donations. Earlier this month, during a public meeting, councilors — who approved the measure in a 6-5 vote — said they have fielded complaints from people who say overly aggressive panhandlers have yelled at them. They also reported a recent scuffle with a homeless man at one of the medians.
This has not been my experience with Holyoke panhandlers along the Route 5 medians. For the last five years, I have driven up and down Route 5 in Holyoke at least a dozen times a week. I see the panhandlers the City Council is talking about — because it’s always the same people at the medians. I have yet to hear one speak without being spoken to, let alone get aggressive. I give money to the homeless women I see because services for them are far less available than the scant resources provided to homeless men. In the Valley, for example, there are a total of 45 shelter beds specifically for homeless single women; an additional 54 beds that can accommodate single men or women; and 229 beds just for men.
I see Julia, a homeless woman I’ve gotten to know, standing at a median with her hair pulled back into afro puffs, every piece of clothing she owns layered one on top of the other, and a laundry sack with all her possessions in it and I think, who needs my dollar more: Julia or me? Julia, who became homeless following a nasty divorce, always wins.
Poverty is not a choice: neither is homelessness. No one sets out to live life on the streets, and being homeless has no relation to a person’s work ethic, value, or ambition. In Massachusetts, the most common way people wind up on the street is after months of searching for a regular residence, couchsurfing, and sleeping in halls they run out of options. This is why 31 percent of people became homeless over the last year, according to Massachusetts Emergency Assistance data. The next most common reason cited is they were living in a residence that is unsuitable for humans. Trying to escape domestic violence is the third most given reason for homelessness, accounting for 14 percent of the 3,215 people and families surveyed.
Julia says she has been trying for years to save up money from her sporadic stints of employment for an apartment, but it’s near impossible to get ahead when under-the-table jobs stiff her or she’s fired for not being able to keep up a required standard of hygiene. Meanwhile, #homelesspaperboy keeps the Valley apprised of how he and his partner work day jobs and deliver papers to scrape together enough money to rent an apartment. For years, however, they have been unable to move out of their car, he says.
If homeless services aren’t reaching these people, is it okay to give them money? Is it necessary for their survival?
What do you think?
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