Panhandling by the homeless is a touchy topic to broach. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the one activity that the homeless engage in which "pushes people’s buttons." And, there is a wide division of opinions regarding it: how it should be handled; whether is should be allowed (or tolerated); how to go about preventing; what to do if you’re asked for spare change; should you give money to panhandlers; should you never give money to panhandlers; etcetera.
As a result of my post yesterday, Sign Of The Times, my e-mail’s inbox was filled with folks expressing their opinions. Some folks thought I was wrong. Others thought I was right. And still others were still flip-flopping between believing that it was okay to give money to the homeless, but only to a limited extant. Only a couple of people actually decided to offer their thoughts on the matter in the form of a comment to the post.
* Sigh *
Well, at least it started people thinking.
Chris – one of those who left a comment – mentioned something right off the top that I wanted to address,
"I’ve given money, but usually only to a few homeless and almost every time they’ve felt the need to try to explain their situation (which I’m not sure I really have required or even asked, but they’ve felt maybe obliged to say?… not sure)."
In particular these 13 words: "… almost every time they’ve felt the need to try to explain their situation" I felt a need to try and explain.
For the most part, the homeless have very little genuine interaction with other members of the community. Most of the time, the only non-homeless they interact with are staff or employees of organizations who provide services for the homeless. Unfortunately, that interaction is generally nothing more than being "processed" to receive those services. So there is an actual lack of communication at the personal level.
Subsequently, the homeless usually only have other homeless persons to interact with. But, since the majority of homeless don’t really want to be homeless, having only other homeless which with to talk with is a constant reminder of their plight – and that can have a deleterious effect on a person’s psyche.
When you consider that human beings are by nature social creatures, you can see that there is a need for some type social interaction. Even the most reclusive, introverted person requires some form of personal interaction with others.
Case in point: within the penal system, one of the worse forms of punishment a person can have inflicted on them is to be placed in "solitary confinement." This type of segregation can and does create the potential for psychological damage.
In a report to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, PSYCHIATRIC EFFECTS OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Board Certified Psychiatrist, stated the following:
"…confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all or nearly all of the day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction – can cause severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a specific syndrome which has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings, all of which have in common features of inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.
In addition, solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition, or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before. Even among inmates who do not develop overt psychiatric illness as a result of confinement in solitary, such confinement almost inevitably imposes significant psychological pain during the period of isolated confinement and often significantly impairs the inmate’s capacity to adapt successfully to the broader prison environment."
For the homeless, who are forced to exist in a community, but who are treated as though they are not a part of the community, these feelings of being isolated from everyone around them has similar effects. And the feeling of constantly being segregated from the rest of the community because of their homelessness dulls their ability to "socialize" with others. In short, they fall out of practice with regards to interacting with anyone other than other homeless persons.
Subsequently, when they are shown kindness by a non-homeless member of the community, there is a sense that a "personal interaction" is occurring; that someone is taking an interest in them. The result is that the homeless person will attempt to engage in a conversation. And because their topics of conversation with other homeless are about homelessness, that is what they end up talking to with non-homeless members of the community.
Additionally, this desire to not feel isolated may cause the person to "talk non-stop" in an attempt to extend the amount of time that they have another person to talk to. They don’t want to feel alone. They don’t want to feel uncared for. They don’t want to feel as though they are unworthy of human companionship.
But it makes me wonder how we seem to be so keen about making sure that prisoners are afforded certain rights, yet so often we aren’t willing to afford those same rights to those folks who call the streets of our community home.
What we’ve done is created a type of urban prison for our nation’s homeless. And while there may be no visible doors or barred windows, we have nonetheless placed them in a social solitary confinement.
It’s a terrible thing to feel alone.