I work in downtown Cleveland and, like any largish city,
there’s a fair number of panhandlers on the sidewalks. Now, it’s tempting to
say these people are “homeless,” but you don’t really know, right? I mean, some
of them certainly look the stereotypical part: ragged clothes, weathered faces,
maybe a hint (or more than a hint) of crazy lurking under the surface… but I’ve
never seen anyone actually sleeping on the street around my building, even when
I’ve been there late at night. Far as I know, asking for change is their job,
and they go home to their apartment at night.
I got hit up by one guy a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t fit
the part of shaggy, wild-eyed homeless man, he looked pretty much like any
other casually dressed person I pass on the street daily. He was crossed the
street and headed toward me, catching my eye. Immediately I’m thinking, “Okay,
what’s this dude want?” when he gets close and says, “Hey man, you got a
cigarette I can borrow?” This puts me at ease and I tell him no, that I don’t
smoke. Then he says, “You got a dollar you can spare?” And for a second I
actually consider it! Not because of any altruistic desire to help my fellow
man, but because I appreciate his rap: he put me at ease by asking for a smoke,
then followed up with the unexpected request for money. Nice work.
But I didn’t give him any money, of course.
I have a pretty strict policy of not giving money to
panhandlers. I think I’ve only actually ponied up twice in my life, and in both
cases I feared that imminent harm would befall my car or my person.
This morning I was walking out of the parking garage when I
saw that one of the regulars on my street was standing right where I’d need to
pass. This particular guy is definitely in the “scary homeless” camp;
bedraggled, wide, crazy eyes, propensity to shout at people who don’t give him
money. This guy once hollered at me from a block away to give him some money,
like I was going to go out of my way and hustle over to him to open my wallet.
There’s a couple people walking about three yards in front
of me, and he hits them up first. “Hey lady!” He nearly shouts. “Can you give
me some money? To get something to eat?” Everyone keeps walking without making
It gets to be my turn, and when he asks for money I say,
“Can’t help you, buddy.” This is generally what I say, and it usually seems to
do the trick and the panhandler in question moves on to his or her next mark. I
did throw in the “buddy,” because I was in a good mood.
But instead of moving on, this guy looks me dead in the eye
and demands, “Why not?”
I try not to be an asshole to strangers. It’s not like I’ve
ever told a homeless person to “Just get a job!” or something like that. So I
don’t want to be that guy who just moves on and doesn’t even acknowledge this
person’s existence. And while I’m pretty quick on my feet generally, I don’t
know what to say. My first thought is to say something like, “I give you money,
you’re just going to spend it on booze.” But I don’t say that because what if
he really is just looking to get something to eat? And my second thought is,
“Why don’t you give this guy a dollar? What’s a buck to you?” In the end, I
just put my head down and keep walking.
I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’ve come to the
conclusion that the real reason I don’t give any panhandlers money is that I
don’t want to contribute to the system. The system where people beg for money
on the street and other people actually give it to them, which in turn
encourages more people to beg for money in the streets. I don’t want to be
approached for a handout on the street, and I don’t think anyone else (I’m
thinking of women, mostly) should be made to feel threatened on the street. If
someone really is homeless, there are local outreach programs that can help
them—some of them, at least.
At least, that’s how I’ve rationalized it to myself. Maybe
the truth is that I’m a racist asshole. I don’t think so, but I’m sure most
racist assholes don’t think of themselves that way either.
As I walked away, the guy shouts at me, “When I hit it big
in the lottery I bet then you’ll wish you gave me some money!”
Labels: other, work